As the Spring returns timely for the Chinese new year celebration, let us indulge ourselves in the masterworks of modern and contemporary Chinese composers, from the concert staples of The Butterfly Lovers and The Yellow River, to the recent works by Zhou Long, Tan Dun and the like.
The Yellow River Concerto is one of the most popular of all Chinese works, a richly melodic exploration of scenic variety, and a forceful expression of patriotic pride. Written in 1958 by Chen Gang and He Zhanhao, The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto has achieved world renown for its moving and beautiful synthesis of Western and Eastern traditions. In 1985 Chen Gang made an arrangement for piano and orchestra, played on this recording in the edition by the brilliant international soloist Chen Jie.
Chinese-born American Lei Liang’s intercontinentally inspired work has been described as ‘hauntingly beautiful’ (The New York Times) and ‘brilliantly original and inarguably gorgeous’ (The WashingtonPost). Vergeis a musical amulet for Liang’s new-born son Albert, while Aural Hypothesis explores how calligraphic lines can find expression in sound. Both Five Seasons and Tremors of a Memory Chord bring together Chinese and Western instruments to create fascinating sonorities, from an evocative single pipa to the unique richness of a grand Chinese orchestra.
The multifaceted and multi-award winner Tan Dun has made an indelible mark on the world music scene with a creative repertoire that spans the boundaries of classical music. The SymphonicPoem on Three Notes describes an evolutionary arc from nature through industry and back to nature, the traditional orchestra augmented with a range of unorthodox sound sources such as wind, stones and car brake drums. The drama of Orchestral Theatre centres on memories of ritual from the composer’s childhood, linking folk music styles to Western atonality, while the Concertofor Orchestra describes the exoticism of Marco Polo’s geographical, musical and spiritual journeys.
Listen to our podcast with Tan Dun talking to Gail Wein about his music
The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto, scored for solo violin and Western orchestra, is one of the best known of all contemporary Chinese compositions. It has become indelibly linked with Takako Nishizaki, whose seventh recording of this hugely popular work features on this disc. Songs and Dances from the Silk Road, by the Slovak-born Peter Breiner, is based on traditional melodies to be heard in the West of China, from where the famous Silk Road takes its course through Central Asia to the Occident.
The wind band offers considerable variety and color to composers, as demonstrated by these three disparate works. Jennifer Higdon’s Soprano Saxophone Concerto brings to the instrument an unerring warmth and sizzling dexterity perfectly suited to its plangent beauty. Kurt Weill’s 1924 ViolinConcerto exudes neo-classicism, Mahlerian influence and a pungent dynamism that account for its popularity. Chen Yi’s Dragon Rhyme employs musical intervals familiar from Beijing Opera, in a work rich in textual color and vivid intensity.
"Formosa Seasons" is based on a series of Haiku-like poems, and is dedicated to the celebrated Taiwanese-American violinist Cho-Liang Lin. It follows the format of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons", and has enjoyed many performances, although only once were the two works paired in concert. The Double concerto for Violin and Cello was again dedicated to Cho-Liang Lin, and to the Taiwanese-American 'cellist Felix Fan, who had studied with Yo-Yo Ma and Janos Starker.
The music of the contemporary Chinese composer and pianist Gao Ping, now resident in New Zealand, draws its inspiration from his native folklore, the oral tradition of story-telling familiar from his childhood in Sichuan, and Chinese poetry. The composer himself writes: “I have always thought of myself as a story-teller of sorts, but in place of words I use music.” The second of the Two Soviet Love Songs for Vocalizing Pianist, a hugely entertaining homage to Shostakovich, interweaves the Russian\ folk song Katyusha with fragments of the Scherzo of the Russian composer’s Tenth Symphony and Youman’s Tea for Two.
China’s first avant-garde composer and one of the most original composers of his generation, Ge Gan-Ru, studied at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music before obtaining his doctorate from Columbia University in the USA. The composer notes that he ‘often tries to combine contemporary Western compositional techniques with my Chinese experience and Chinese musical characteristics to create a unique and highly individual sound world.’ Modern Works was founded in 1997 in New York by cellist Madeleine Shapiro to focus on recent string repertoire. The ensemble has given premières of works by Berio, Gubaidulina and Xenakis.
Influenced by both the East and the West, Chinese-American composer Huang Ruo strives to create a seamless synthesis and a convincing organic unity, drawing influences from many genres and cultures. His music has been performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, the ASKO Ensemble, and the Nieuw Ensemble, under conductors James Conlon, Dennis Russell Davies and Wolfgang Sawallisch. In 2003, he was featured on a Composer Portrait concert at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, where the International Contemporary Ensemble premiered the Chamber Concerto Cycle. The concert was hailed by New York Times critic Allan Kozinn as No. 2 of the Top Ten Classical Moments of 2003.
The release by Naxos of Huang Ruo’s Chamber Concertos Nos. 1–4 (8.559322) was hailed as ‘a bold debut’ (Gramophone) which ‘shows a major compositional voice emerging’ (The Juilliard Journal Online). This disc, also conducted by the composer, presents three of his Drama Theaters for various combinations of Eastern and Western instruments—including 18 beer bottles—the elusive subtitle of each strikingly suggesting a musical/cultural/philosophical idea. Similarly, The Three Tenses explores a paradoxically integrated notion of time, where past, present and future create ‘a seamless entity called timelessness’. Huang Ruo won the 2008 International Composition Prize of the Luxembourg Society for Contemporary Music and has been cited by the New Yorker as ‘one of the most intriguing of the new crop of Asian-American composers.’
Ma Sicong is remembered today as a leading violinist, composer and teacher who devoted his life to creating a new national identity for Chinese music. He pioneered the use of folk idioms, often adopting fragments or motifs from folk tunes and crafting them into his own musical writing. His vast output includes symphonies, concertos, chamber music, operas and ballet music as well as various forms of vocal music. Of this extensive output, Ma’s violin music is widely regarded as one of his most important contributions. This is the first release in the Naxos Chinese Classics series.
The Chinese composer and violinist Ma Sicong was born in Haifeng in Guangdong (Canton) province in 1912, and was among the relatively few Chinese musicians of his generation to study abroad. He settled in America in 1967. The music on this disc embraces contrasting moods, each imbued with Ma Sicong’s abiding love for his homeland and combining Chinese inspiration with Western musical techniques. Shortly after composing the Rondo No. 4 he wrote this heartbreaking entry in his diary: ‘When can I end my exile? Nobody knows.’
The Phoenix, co-commissioned by the Seattle Symphony and Danish National Symphony Orchestra, was inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen tale, the mythical bird symbolizing for Chinese-American composer Bright Sheng “the muse of all peoples.” Aggressive fervor seeks meditative peace in H’un: Inmemoriam 1966–1976, hailed by TheNew York Times as “a searing portrait of the Cultural Revolution in China…deeply affecting.” Sheng’s exquisite Spring Dreams, Three Fantasias and Tibetan Dance are available on Naxos 8.570601. China Dreams and Nanking Nanking can be heard on Naxos 8.555866.
Chinese-American composer Bright Sheng acknowledges no aesthetic borders, weaving together haunting melodies and sonorities from sources as diverse as Chinese, Kazakhstani and Tibetan music, or even his own dreams, like silken threads into shimmering brocades of sound. His love of song and dance, blending Asian and Western instrumental textures, imbues his music with a fascinating, highly personal cultural counterpoint that has won him immense popularity, critical acclaim and an enviable reputation as an ever-fresh voice in cross-cultural music.
The Chinese composer Bright Sheng was born in Shanghai and studied there and in the United States, where he has established a reputation as a composer. He has won awards both in China and in America. The present release includes works evoking the spirit of China, a celebration of its landscape, its culture and of the sad history of 1937.
Trained side-by-side in Beijing at the Central Conservatory, and in New York at Columbia University, Chen Yi, the first woman to receive a master’s degree in composition in China, and Zhou Long are now partners on the faculty at the University of Missouri—Kansas City. Despite the close ties, their compositions enjoy distinct identities, frequently bringing into fascinating juxtaposition Western and Eastern instruments as well as traditional and contemporary compositional techniques. The Beijing New Music Ensemble is the only independent music ensemble dedicated to new music in China. This is its début recording.
This programme brings together aesthetic and musical elements of East and West. Zhou Long captures the essence of the Chinese plucked ch’in, and Cambodian aesthetics are preserved in Chinary Ung’s expressive Spiral III. Tan Dun’s Eight Colors combines the exotic timbres of Peking Opera with Second Viennese School tonalities. Gao Ping’s Bright Light and Cloud Shadows has been admired for its ‘long-breathed brush strokes’ (Washington Post). Taking its inspiration from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Toru Takemitsu’s beautifully crafted A Way a Lone evokes a shimmering sound world.
While the piano is a western invention, it has come to occupy a special position in Chinese musical life. The earliest Chinese piano pieces date from the first half of the twentieth century; many remain popular in the concert hall today. This latest release in Naxos' Chinese Classics focuses on piano works from the Republican period (1911-1949), featuring Jie Chen, Bronze Medal Winner of the 2005 Santander Piano Competition. The music draws on well-known ancient melodies or folk-tunes, as reflected in the titles.