A dramatic cultural mix of new music

Posted: February 26, 2002

It should not be surprising that four composers born in China and now working in America would utilize techniques of both Eastern and Western musical cultures. What is not so usual, but was apparent in Sunday's Network for New Music concert, is that all have created music of uncommon drama, introspection and spirituality.

With the composers in attendance at the Settlement Music School in Queen Village, the concert began and ended with music of great momentum and coloristic variety.

The opener, Jing Jing Luo's The Spell, utilized bold instrumentation, such as bass clarinet, timpani and harsh pizzicato on two cellos. It was propulsive and dynamic, but the destination for all its energy was not clear.

The concluding piece, ". . . as like a raging fire," written on commission for the Network for New Music by Chen Yi, is also theatrical in its construction, but the drama is expressed with greater narrative focus and a more palpable emotional thrust. Its textures and riffing gestures often made the work sound like a free-jazz jam session.

Zhou Long's Spirit of Chimes, written for piano, cello and violin, proved to be the most refined confluence of various styles of any piece on the program. Its opening evocation of ancient stone bells and bone whistles leads to a passage of broad, traditional whole-tone melodies. Chromatic splashes on the piano introduce an extended section of Bartok-like rapid, loud and virtuosic playing, before a serene conclusion that recalls all these stylistic influences.

Two masters of traditional Chinese instruments supplemented the fine Network regulars. Taiwan-born composer Shih-Hui Chen structures Fu II in the spirit of a 19th-century concerto, in which the soloist is a protagonist doing battle with the line and shape of the orchestra. The heroine in this case was the dazzling Wu Man, playing the pipa, a four-stringed fretted instrument with the range of the viola and the timbre of a harpsichord.

In contrast to the fiery projection of Wu's pipa playing, Jiebing Chen produced exotic but soothing tones on the erhu, a 2,000-year-old two-stringed instrument with the bow placed between the strings. She provided a wonderfully placid centerpoint in a uniquely stimulating concert of new music.

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