Mark Gresham | 08 FEB 2019
We are living in times when national identity is often devoured by an increasingly globalized world. Some artists use their art to keep their heritage alive; others absorb and fold into it influences from their encounters with other cultures, especially by the cosmopolitan continuum which is predominant among the 21st century’s global melee of ideas and aesthetics.
Thursday’s concert of compositions by four living Chinese-American composers at Kopleff Recital Hall reflected this potential for ambivalence through pieces that blend the composers’ Chinese roots with their American cultural experiences and post-graduate Western musical training. Contemporary music ensemble Bent Frequency provided the performing forces, Georgia State University’s Center for Collaborative and International Arts (CENCIA) and the GSU Confucius Institute hosted the concert and provided support, all timed to roughly coincide with celebrations of the Chinese New Year, which began on Tuesday.
Such celebratory programs are unfortunately too often stereotypical in their portrayals of Chinese culture to Americans, but that was not at all the case with this concert. It was, instead, a rather serious look at the adventurous works of these very different composers, all of whom hold American doctoral degrees in music.
Jin Ping was the only male composer in the group. His “The Rites of the River Gods” opened the program, performed by trombonist Bill Mann and percussionist Stuart Gerber. Interestingly, Gerber was also the percussionist for its premiere in 1998 at Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, where both he an Jin each earned their doctorates.
The trombone part largely explored the instrument’s vocal qualities, its lyrical aspects including subtle pitch bending, but also interjected with contrasting emotional outbursts. In that sense, the trombone served as the protagonist in a human monodrama, with the percussion providing the scenic backdrop against which it played out.
Dorothy Chang is the only one of the four composers born in the United States – the Chicago suburb Winfield, Illinois – earning her music degrees from University of Michigan and Indiana University. Her “Two Preludes” were performed by Saxophonist Jan Berry Baker and pianist Erika Tazawa. In two movements, the first slowly unfolded in a manner that was spacious and transparent, with a free and spontaneous felling to it. The second was aggressively virtuosic in its energetic, exuberant speed and shifting rhythmic pulse.
Bent Frequency wrapped the concert’s first half “The Han Figurines” by Chen Yi, the first Chinese woman to receive a Master of Arts in music composition from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. Baker, Tazawa and Gerber were joined by clarinetist Ted Gurch, violinist Adelaide Federici and contrabassist Emily Koh for the sextet inspired by clay figurines of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 A.D.) with their exaggerated forms and postures. Chen’s music vividly evoked elements of strength, motion and velocity they imply.
The second half was reserved for the guest of honor, composer Xi Wang, who led a seminar at GSU in the afternoon and a pre-concert talk about her music prior to the evening concert. Gurch, Federici, Tazawa and Gerber returned to the stage with flutist Matthieu Clavé and cellist Brad Ritchie to perform Xi’s “Echo.Poem.Image”. At just over a half hour duration, when “Echo.Poem.Image” is performed in its full regalia it is a theatrical work which involves dancers and visual effects in addition to the music. In this instance, a mostly darkened stage and some movement around it by the musicians had to suffice. Nevertheless, the multi-movement work made its points well despite the limitations on the theatrical elements – no dancers, no visual projections.
Of all of the works in the program, “Echo.Poem.Image” had the most overt references to Chinese culture. While the first movement, “Silhouette,” involves itself more with purely musical concerns of timbral fusion and micro-variations of of melody and rhythm, “Nostalgia” references a Chinese poem in its depiction of a lonely soul in desolation. “Operatic Rhapsody” evokes elements of the Beijing Opera (Jīngjù), in particular the emulation of a Chinese sheng, an important instrument in Chinese opera, by the E-flat clarinet.
The fourth movement, “Love Song,” is lyrical, with violin and cello depicting the antiphonal singing at a distance of young women and men expressing their “mutual admiration.” The full ensemble plays the final movement, “Carnival,” which playfully juxtaposed materials from all of the preceding movements in a kaleidoscopic musical montage. ■