About this Recording
8.570601 - SHENG, Bright: Spring Dreams / 3 Fantasies / Tibetan Dance (Cho-liang Lin, Singapore Chinese Orchestra, Tsung Yeh, A.-M. Schub, E. Svoboda, B. Sheng)
English 

Bright Sheng (b. 1955)
Spring Dreams • Three Fantasies • Tibetan Dance

 

Dreams recur again and again in the music of composer Bright Sheng, from China Dreams for orchestra (1995) through two works heard on this disc—the concerto Spring Dreams (1997, rev. 1999) and the Dream Song movement of his Three Fantasies (2006). Sheng’s acoustic imaginings range across time, space, and cultures. While in our identityconscious age, his music is labeled Asian American or noted for its blend of Western European and Chinese influences, Sheng’s own musical passions, while rooted in his Chinese and American experiences, are also deeply personal. “I embrace ‘cultural license’”, Sheng explains, “the right to reflect my appreciation and understanding of both cultures in my work.” For Sheng as an artist there is no conflict between such seemingly incongruous traditions. His aesthetic acknowledges no borders, only inspirations ranging from childhood piano lessons with his mother in Shanghai and his work in a provincial Chinese folkensemble to studies at the conservatories of Shanghai, New York’s Queens College, and finally Columbia University. “I’m a mixture of both cultures”, Sheng explains, “but I consider myself both 100% American and 100% Chinese.”

Invented in the 1950s, the Chinese orchestra reflects the desire of Chinese Communist leaders to match the traditions of the West. Traditional Chinese instrumentalists were thus seated in sections akin to their Western counterparts: winds (such as sheng), ‘brass’ (suona, a type of shawm), bowed strings (erhu), plucked strings (pipa), and percussion. Since it is such a recent invention, the Chinese orchestra has very little repertoire written specifically for it. World-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma thus asked Sheng to write a concerto for cello to be accompanied by this ensemble. Impressed by the 1997 première of Spring Dreams at Carnegie Hall, violinist Cho-Liang Lin asked the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra to commission the version for violin recorded here.

In 1996, before writing the piece, Sheng returned to his homeland after a fourteen-year absence to reacquaint himself with the capabilities of traditional Chinese instruments. The composer faced several daunting challenges. Foremost was the fact that most Chinese instruments, such as the pipa and erhu, were in themselves solo instruments, designed to perform treble melodies primarily alone and not as part of a large ensemble. Many played only in a single key and each had a narrow and rather high melodic compass. “No conventional Chinese instrument plays below the register of a violin’s open G string”, Sheng explains, so there is no true bass voice in the orchestra. Although some traditional instruments have been modified to reach lower pitches, many Chinese orchestras, including the one Sheng uses here, incorporate Western cellos and double basses to reinforce the lowest register. Sheng’s biggest challenge, however, was in connecting the musical thinking of Asian musicians with his Westerninfluenced technique. While most contemporary works for Chinese orchestra feature either flexible, unison melodies or static modernist clusters, Sheng’s aesthetic sets melody against detailed counterpoint. Sheng solved these problems by keeping each instrument in its idiomatic style, while demanding independent metric precision from the ensemble.

The concerto’s title, Spring Dreams, draws upon a Chinese tradition of evocative titles used to inspire composer, performers, and listeners alike. In classical Chinese, the word “chun” (spring), the composer explains, “has strong connotations of lust and sensual love”. The first movement, Midnight Bells, is inspired by a Tang Dynasty (618–907) poem written by Chang Ji (d. 780):

The pale moon falls into the frost swept universe,
Disquieted only by cries from the crow;
Fisherman’s light, glittering on the maple leaves,
Torments the sleepless pilgrim. Far beyond the walls of Su-zhou,*
From the temples in the Chilly Mountains,
Echoes of the midnight bells chime over the visitor’s boat.

* Su-zhou is a city near Shanghai

According to the composer, “Some of the material in the second movement, Spring Opera, is derived from an instrumental interlude of the well-known Peking Opera, Farewell My Concubine, in which Princess Yu bids farewell to her lord with a sword dance before she kills herself. Although inspired by the character of the music, it is not my intention to recreate the dance scene in the movement”.

In 1985 at the Tanglewood Music Festival, Sheng met Leonard Bernstein who quickly became one of Sheng’s most potent artistic influences. Not coincidentally, Sheng occupies the Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professorship at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance and both musicians combined activities as pianists, conductors, and composers. Bernstein explained to Sheng in a conducting seminar that beauty in music came from the avoidance of “big downbeats” to give music extension and life. Sheng’s muse thus seeks these extensions in a primarily horizontal approach to melody. “My philosophy centers on the cantus firmus phenomenon”, Sheng explains, “music has to sing—you must have some sort of singing quality”. This approach to song helps explain the broad accessibility of Sheng’s music, which despite its complex cultural counterpoint is held together by a strong melodic thread.

This singing quality is immediately apparent in the Three Fantasies (2006) for violin and piano, which Sheng wrote specifically for Cho-Liang Lin, the internationally recognized violin soloist who is featured on this recording. The first movement Dream Song, literally came to Sheng in a dream. Rather than transcribe the aural illusion immediately, however, Sheng held back, waiting to see if the subconscious air would be memorable, to see if it might have the quality to become music. “Great ideas will stick”, Sheng observes, “if you forget about it, it’s not worth keeping.”

Set for violin, this ethereal dream melody opens the piece and is carefully notated to avoid any sense of downbeat (thus following Bernstein’s proviso). Using metric shifts and syncopations that are imperceptible to the listener, Sheng disrupts the performer’s sense of meter to produce a melodic line that literally floats in time. Lin’s delicate use of portamento slides between notes adds further emphasis to the melody’s horizontal trajectory. The piano mirrors the violin line note for note in a characteristic Chinese musical texture. Sheng, however, interjects moments of independence and rather than unison playing, the voices are often separated by intervals of the third, fifth, and later the fourth.

Movement two, Tibetan Air, shares the pentatonic flavor of the first, but not its character. Here piano and violin begin as if sounding a fanfare, one as dissonant as it is triumphant. The violin presents the title melody, a ‘black-key’ pentatonic tune, set here against a dissonant D pedal that produces an angry intensity. The pianist echoes the tune and closes the first section with powerful reiterations of the opening exclamations. Violin and piano then take on another sinuous mirrored melody, while the pianist’s left hand recalls the Tibetan air and offers both harmonic underpinning and increasingly melodic propulsion that drives the movement to an ecstatic close.

The third movement, Kazakhstan Love Song, begins without pause, but leaves the pentatonic realm of the opening movements behind. Here the violin spins a beautiful, almost operatic, lament, intensified with sliding portamento and accompanied by the pianist’s soft punctuations. But for a climactic outburst, the volume throughout is very soft, and the work closes with a return to the movement’s sparse opening texture.

Sheng began his intercultural explorations at the age of fifteen, when for seven years during China’s Cultural Revolution he worked as pianist and percussionist in a folk-troupe in the remote Qinghai province near the Tibetan border. The melodies of this mountainous region tend to feature large, spiky intervallic leaps that reflect the local tectonic contour. In the tradition of Bartók, Kodály, and Stravinsky, Sheng’s lyric melodies often draw on such folk inspiration, retaining both the pathos and intensity of their sources. “What makes Bartók’s music great”, Sheng notes, “is not only that he used…folk-tunes (many composer had done that already), but that he managed to keep the beauty and savageness of these folk elements while blending them to the ‘fine art’ Western classical music. So the listener realizes that both are equally great. One doesn’t borrow from the other. The result enriches both.” Sheng aspires to the same goal.

Tibetan Dance (2001) for B-flat clarinet, violin, and piano had its première at the Library of Congress with the Verdehr Trio of Michigan State University. “The first two movements…”, writes Sheng, “are a reminiscence; as if one is hearing songs from a distant memory. The work is anchored on the last movement, when the music gradually becomes real. Here, the music is based on a Tibetan folk dance motive from Qinghai.”

The trio opens with a whispered duet for clarinet and violin, echoed by the piano. A gentle trill by all three instruments recalls water imagery and evokes a serene Japanese garden that is this movement’s inspiration.

Movement two, titled Song is a setting of the traditional Chinese folk lament Xiao baicai (Little Cabbage), about a young girl who has lost her parents. “It’s a very beautiful tune that people sing when they visit the grave of a relative”, Sheng explains.

Tibetan Dance gets its name from the final movement, a fast, raucous dance in which the players frequently take on the rôles of percussionists. The violinist taps the body of the instrument with gentle punctuations that later pound in the lower reaches of the piano. Their dance is loud, athletic, almost manic. A contrasting section featuring piano fades into the distance, setting up the aptly named closing, marked Surprise!

Mark Clague

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Spring Dreams was originally commissioned by Carnegie Hall and written for solo cello and orchestra of Chinese instruments; the solo violin version was commissioned by the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra and is dedicated to violinist Cho-Liang Lin.

Three Fantasies was co-commissioned by the Library of Congress and La Jolla SummerFest; it is dedicated to Cho-Liang Lin.

Tibetan Dance was commissioned by the Verdehr Trio with funding from Michigan State University and the Phillips Collection of the Library of Congress. Dedicated to the Verdehr Trio.


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