February 19 marks the start of the Lunar New Year, known in China as the Year of the Ram, which is the eighth sign in the Chinese zodiac, and launches the Chinese New Year and its associated spring festivities. Here we present a selection of music that has its roots in the world's most populous nation: ethnic sounds, fusion works, reflections on nature and snapshots of politics – what follows is just a small sample from the Naxos catalogue that illustrates China's increasing presence and influence in the world of classical music.
Here's a track from pianist Jie Chen's disc of Classical Chinese Favourites (8.570602) to set the mood.
Listen to an extract from Shande Ding's Children's Suite: II. Butterfly Chasing
Born in Shanghai, now resident in Greater New York, Ge Gan-ru is one of China’s foremost composers. Very different from his previous exploration of the Western avant-garde, Shanghai Reminiscences is a warm and affecting evocation of “the street scenes and sounds” of Gan-ru’s childhood in pre-Cultural Revolution Shanghai, viewed through the lens of his adopted American traditions. Butterfly Overture is the composer’s symphonic tribute to a beloved teacher from his Shanghai Conservatory days. International Record Review described Ge Gan-ru’s string quartets (8.570603) as “Nothing short of contemporary masterpieces”.
In 2000 Bright Sheng collected music from the remote mountains and deserts along the ancient Silk Road in China. The Song and Dance of Tears combines Chinese and Western sonorities in an evocation of the deep emotional impressions made on him by the beautiful music of that region. Colors of Crimson expands the timbre of the solo marimba through a fascinating spectrum of orchestral effects, while the skilful fusion of Chinese and Central Asian classical and folk music in The Blazing Mirage was inspired by the miraculously preserved artistic and cultural treasures of the Dunhuang Caves.
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.
Listen to the podcast The Phoenix and The Composer:
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.
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 the podcast of Tan Dun in conversation with Gail Wein:
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.
China, Opera and Ballet
ADAMS, J.: Nixon in China Robert Orth, Maria Kanyova, Thomas Hammons,Marc Heller, Opera Colorado Chorus, Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop
A longtime collaborator of John Adams and champion of his music, Marin Alsop directs this live recording of Opera Colorado’s 25th Anniversary Celebration production of Nixon in China, presented at Denver’s new Ellie Caulkins Opera House during the 2008 National Performing Arts Convention, and featuring an internationally recognized cast. Alice Goodman’s epic libretto and John Adams’s distinctive music weave together a colorful fabric of actual events from President Nixon’s historic visit to the People’s Republic of China with intimate examinations of the opera’s real life characters. The spectacle, drama, humor and pathos of this masterpiece remain as compelling today as when the opera was premièred in 1987.