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Bruce Hodges
The Juilliard Journal Online, February 2008

In these three exuberant hybrids, traditional music from China, the Caribbean, and South America merges with standard European classical forms—and the results are exhilarating. A prototypical example is composer Huang Ruo, a current Juilliard D.M.A. candidate, whose four-part Chamber Concerto Cycle boasts an eclectic style with unmistakable references to Chinese music. This recording (Naxos 8.559322)—the debut by the fast-rising International Contemporary Ensemble—shows a major ompositional voice emerging. The demands on the musicians are legion, such as in the brutal opening to the Third Concerto (Divergence, from 2001) with its pounding piano and obsessive trills, or in the final movement of Yueh Fei (Concerto No. 1 for Eight Players, 2000), in which they quietly intone a chantlike figure against transparent textures.

In The Lost Garden (Concerto No. 2 for Eight Players, 2001), the players plunge in with a raw yell while the instrumental portions hover in the air like hummingbirds. In 19 minutes, subtle rustlings collide with eerie whoops, typical of Huang’s bracing contrasts. And Confluence from 2002 (for 15 players) also opens with a burst of noise, followed by tidal waves of sound washing ashore with imaginative percussion effects. Careful with the volume control: engineers Charles Harbutt and Tom Knap have given Huang such a vivid recording that a cautionary note might be in order! (But a riveting realism is the payoff.) Throughout, Huang’s often whiplash stylistic turns seem to energize these musicians, who play with formidable confidence and intensity.

Ken Smith
, October 2007

A Bold Debut That Could Herald a Chinese Renaissance

Early observers who once heralded a future for Chinese composition on the international stage have been hard pressed to find anyone in a younger generation ready for prime time. That is, until now ... One can probably overplay the fact that Huang was born in 1976, the year of Chairman Mao's death, but he clearly brings a different life experience and frame of reference to his art than do his older Chinese colleagues. His Chamber Concerto cycle, four interrelated concerti grossi written between 2000 and 2002, reveals a particularly fresh voice. In fact, to find music that screams this loud for attention ... Huang, who co-founded the International Contemporary Ensemble in 2001, writes for its musicians both individually and collectively to great effect. His heightened sense of tone colour merely shades the music's inherent drama, his attention to form acute enough that no musical idea drags on too long. This is no emigré looking back to a lost country; Huang's musical green card and well travelled passport offer more fluidity than that. Source material is used neither ornamentally nor structurally, but (as with the folksong "Full River Red" in Yueh Fei) fully deconstructed and remade in Huang's musical image, sometimes over great stretches of time. This is a bold debut, with all the typical brashness of youth.

Phillip Scott
Fanfare, September 2007

My favorite among these concertos is No. 4. Formally, it is the tightest and most coherent of the four, as you would expect from the title “Confluence.” The larger ensemble enables Huang to command greater textural variety: indeed, the loveliest passage on the entire disc is the wind-dominated second movement, anchored by the warm tone of the bassoon. Another plus: in this work the musicians are not required to vocalize. Concerto No. 4 brings together musical ideas from the three preceding concertos, but I think that the parts of this cycle are greater than their sum and are best listened to separately.

The sound quality is excellent, and the musicianship of a very high standard. …Huang’s music is undeniably vibrant, visceral, and full of color. © 2007 Fanfare Read complete review

American Record Guide, August 2007

It's always A Good Thing to discover an interesting, moving new musical voice. Huang Ruo was born in China a scant 30 years ago, just as the Chinese Revolution was ending and a reconnection to the rest of the world was beginning. He is currently a doctoral student at Juilliard under Samuel Adler.

The Chamber Concert Cycle is a set of four works of varied instrumentation, composed from 2000 to 2002. They are linked thematically and dramatically. Though the drama cannot be fully experienced on an audio recording, one can tell that the players are asked to sing, chant, speak, and move around the stage. They also incorporate Chinese folk melodies, against a modernist sound palate.

Ruo has incorporated a variety of influences, and the most prominent is George Crumb. He shares with Crumb a sense of sound, in kaleidoscopic variety. In these works, unconventional instruments are not used, but standard instruments are used in unconventional ways. Ruo quotes Chinese melodies the way Crumb might quote Chopin or Bach, and with much the same effect.

Other voices can be heard: Stravinsky in his primitivist period, Boulez, Messaien. Yet Ruo’s voice is his own, and this cycle of work is fascinating in its own right, while showing immense promise for the future.

Among Ruo’s best qualities is his pacing. His music never overstays its welcome, unlike many of the newest composers. He has already mastered structural balance—something some composers never achieve.

Unless you are diametrically opposed to non-tonal music, you owe it to yourself to discover this music.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2007

Huang Ruo's life began at the end of China's Cultural Revolution in 1976 when Western influences once again were allowed to take hold of music education. Already showing many gifts as a composer, Ruo went to the States to study at the Oberlin Conservatory and later at the Juilliard School of Music. While still in this educational process he was receiving prestigious premiers, among them the Chamber Concerto Cycle in 2003. The four sections have the titles, Yueh Fei, The Lost Garden, Divergence and Confluence, each shaping the nature of the music as they move rapidly between tonality and aggressive atonality, the sound of a folk song intermingling with the tones of Eastern instrumental timbres. The first and second concertos call for eight players, the third needing five, while the most recent concerto from 2002 is expanded to fifteen. The whole is intended as a theatrical experience with movement, singing and chanting from the instrumentalists. I have to confess that I find the sounds fascinating, but my ears have yet to adjust to Ruo, which is probably my loss. He is certainly an assured young man, with the knowledge of using conventional instruments to produce unconventional sounds when integrated with one another. The performers in this recording gave the first performance, and placed it on disc the following year. High on impact and well detailed.

Stephen Eddins

In the late twentieth century, a wave of Chinese composers affected by the Cultural Revolution emigrated to the U.S., passed through the American university system, and established prominent and interesting careers integrating the music of their homeland with the advanced techniques of European art music. The first generation of composers included Tan Dun, Bright Sheng, and Chen Yi. Huang Ruo, who was born in 1976, the year the Revolution ended, continues the tradition of discovering new ways to bring together the techniques and aesthetics of two very different cultures. On the basis of this CD, Ruo has a distinctively original voice and is no imitator of the composers who preceded him. Using only Western instruments, his music is recognizably the work of a Chinese-American composer and is remarkable for the high drama he creates and for its brilliant and often astonishing orchestration.

The lineage of the four chamber concertos here can be traced to those of Berg and Ligeti. They are intended to be played as a set, and while each has a distinct and individual profile, taken together their cumulative effect is remarkably powerful. Written for ensembles of 5 to 15 players, they require the instrumentalists not only to perform with technical virtuosity, but to act, sing, chant, and speak. Since George Crumb popularized these devices, they have been overused to the point of cliché, but here they have an integrality and dramatic purposefulness that are crucial to making these pieces so overwhelmingly effective.

The International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) an eight-member group that was formed in 2001 when its members were students at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, delivers performances of rock-solid technical security and expressive passion. Ruo is a composer to watch out for; his work should be of strong interest to any fans of new music.

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