October 08, 2015


Bright Sheng: Dance Capriccio for Piano and String Quartet; String Quartet No. 5, “The Miraculous”; A Night at the Chinese Opera for Violin and Piano; My Song for Solo Piano; My Other Song for Solo Piano. The Shanghai Quartet (Weigang Li and Yi-Wen Jiang, violins; Honggang Li, viola; Nicholas Tzavaras, cello); Peter Serkin and Bright Sheng, piano. Naxos. $12.99.

Gordon Chin: Cello Concerto No. 1; Symphony No, 3, “Taiwan.” Wen-Sinn Yang, cello; Taiwan Philharmonic conducted by Shao-Chia Lü. Naxos. $12.99.

Isang Yun INBETWEEN North and South Korea—A Film by Maria Stodtmeier. Accentus Music DVD. $24.99.

     Bright Sheng (born 1955) and Gordon Chin (born 1957) exemplify a generation of composers from Oriental countries for whom a melding of Eastern and Western influences and sounds is paramount: their music tries to reach audiences accustomed to very different forms, aural experiences and instruments. The extent to which listeners believe their mixing of influences creates a new experience rather than an auditory mismatch will determine how interesting audiences find their music to be. The new Naxos CD of Sheng’s chamber music opens with Dance Capriccio, written in 2011 for Peter Serkin and the Shanghai Quartet, who perform it here. Inspired by the dance music of the Sherpas of Nepal – a group best known in the West for accompanying climbers of Mount Everest and other peaks – the work whirls by in a series of contrasting sections that range from tender to wild, slow to fast. The tunes sound vaguely exotic but not noticeably more so than others from the same region. String Quartet No. 5 (2007) is an unusually stark representation of contrasting musical ideas: the work is built around two very different themes that never really change or develop but that eventually achieve a kind of rapprochement – coexistence if not full blending, and a metaphor, whether intended or not, for much of Sheng’s music. A Night at the Chinese Opera (2005), the one work on this CD in which Sheng himself performs on piano, uses music from a well-known-in-China work called Farewell My Concubine as the basis for a piece in which the violin represents the female singing voice from the stage work while the piano is primarily rhythmic in support. Also on this CD are two solo-piano suites, My Song (1989), which, like the Dance Capriccio, was written for Peter Serkin, and My Other Song (2007). Like String Quartet No. 5, these four-movement piano works have a very overt form of musical blending: Sheng uses Chinese folk music and dance as the basis for virtuoso pieces whose inventiveness clearly fits within the tradition of Western piano music. My Song, for example, opens with a movement based not on Western polyphony but on Eastern heterophony, while the finale of My Other Song is based on a Buddhist chant. In drawing directly and clearly on folk material and then expanding and interpreting it in Western classical style, Sheng follows in the tradition of composers such as Bartók and Kodály while evolving a blended musical language that first-rate performers such as those on this CD bring eloquently to life.

     The Chin works on another new Naxos disc are orchestral and large-scale rather than chamber music, but their blending of influences is equally clear. Cello Concerto No. 1 (2006) is an essentially tonal work whose three movements – marked Allegro, Dreams trapped inside the Mirror, and After Great Pain – progress from intensity to concluding sadness, the entire effect being of a kind of world-weariness that is emphasized by the quotations from Shakespeare, Blaise Pascal and Samuel Johnson that preface the movements. Wen-Sinn Yang, former principal cellist of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, tackles this technically demanding piece with playing that shows strength and a very considerable dynamic range – which the music requires. The music is a bit more of an intellectual exercise, designed to reflect literary thoughts, than a strictly musical communication, but it is certainly a challenge for soloist, orchestra and listeners alike. The Taiwan Philharmonic under Shao-Chia Lü does a fine job of support and balance in the concerto, and really comes into its own in Chin’s Symphony No. 3 (1996), another three-movement work with a definite program. Chin’s storytelling through music is one way in which he mixes the influences of East and West; in the case of this, his “Taiwan” symphony, the topic itself is intended to communicate, through a traditional Western orchestra, a distinctly Eastern story. The symphony looks at Taiwan’s history and tries to project its future, using outer movements created with many techniques of modern Western composition: bursts of brass, dueling timpani, multiple string glissandi, aleatoric passages and more. This generally unsettled music – the first movement is called “Plunder,” the third “Upsurge” – contrasts with that of the middle movement, which is called “Dark Night” and based on the melody of a Taiwanese song. But here too matters are far from placid, as ominous-sounding interruptions occur repeatedly. The symphony conveys feelings of uncertainty and distress, plus a sense of urgency to get on with and into the future, however unsettled it may be.

     The world première recordings of the works by Sheng and Chin offer musical insights into cultures trying, however uneasily, to blend – at least at the margins – and coexist. The Maria Stodtmeier film called Isang Yun INBETWEEN North and South Korea, in contrast, looks at two cultures – ones very closely related by their history until recent times – that are forced into coexistence by physical proximity but that generally seem to have little interest in getting along with each other. North and South Korea remain technically at war – the Korean War ended in 1953 with an armistice, not a peace treaty – and their mutual belligerence remains a frequent subject of news headlines more than 60 years after the ceasefire. What interests Stodtmeier is whether music can be a force bridging the enormous gaps between the two countries (or one divided country, depending on who is describing the Korean peninsula). This is not a new question: the New York Philharmonic’s 2008 trip to North Korea was an overt attempt to use music as a cultural fence-mender, and although it was not successful in any significant political way, it is still held out as an approach that may bear fruit in the future. Stodtmeier makes the music-as-bridge story a more individual one by focusing her documentary on an earlier time, specifically on composer Isang Yun (1917-1995). Sometimes dismissed as an apologist for North Korea – he was close to the regime of Kim Il-sung – Yun was actually one of the few musicians or other artists with a level of prominence in both North and South. He traveled repeatedly to North Korea to try to introduce his own music and Western compositional techniques there, and the Isang Yun Music Institute was founded in Pyongyang in 1984. But Yun also, in 1988, pushed for a joint concert featuring musicians from both North and South – and although that concept did not come to pass, South Korean artists were invited to the North in 1990. Yun’s own works were performed in South Korea in 1982, and Yun was invited in 1994 to attend a festival of his music in South Korea – although, again, this came to naught because of political tensions. These are some elements of the background against which Stodtmeier creates her film, using its 60-minute running time to explore elements of the musical (in addition to political) differences between North and South – she was allowed to film in both places, although obviously with restrictions. The film argues that Yun, who became a German citizen in 1971 and eventually died in Berlin, was a figure of reconciliation, a man who tried to mix and blend the influences of North Korea and South Korea and to use music to further their mutual understanding and ultimately bring about reunification. Obviously, this did not happen, and a reuniting of North and South now seems less likely than ever, if contemporary political analysis is to be believed. But the notion of art as a method of overcoming differences, the possibility that music could become a gateway through which bitterly opposed people and systems could find common ground, remains a persistent one. Stodtmeier’s film, available as an Accentus Music DVD, is narrow in its focus on Yun and is based on events involving earlier leadership of both North and South. It will nevertheless be intriguing for those who think music has the potential to be far more than a medium of entertainment and emotional expression.

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