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Steve Schwartz, July 2010

China and chinoiserie. The work of Bright Sheng, a survivor of and refugee from Mao’s Cultural Revolution, has usually focused on the synthesis of Chinese or Tibetan culture with that of Europe. Possessed of a tremendous talent that sometimes crosses over into brilliance, he is also terrifically uneven. Unlike his fellow expatriate Tan Dun, he has a sharp dramatic sense, an instinct for sure progression and climax. I would almost call him the Chinese Leonard Bernstein, in regard to his compositions. He has a feel for the vitality of “low” material and a love of strong rhythm and orchestral color. This music doesn’t try to get you to blend your consciousness with placid surroundings. It wants you to feel…the first work to bring Sheng to general notice, H’un or Lacerations commemorates the victims of the Cultural Revolution. I’ve come to think of human history as bursts of civilization, fragile and transitory, punctuating long stretches of barbarity. England had its religious and civil wars bracketing the Age of Shakespeare. The United States (at least in Texas, where I live) seems determined to dive into its very own darkness. China, for centuries one of the highest cultures in the world (if you overlooked the misery of the poor and powerless), plunged into the horrors of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, a hatred of all things Western and non-Mao, in order to dominate and regiment an elite political base. Millions died as a result. The music earns its title, a bag of sharp edges—glass, wire, and razor blades. It falls into two large parts: an aural assault which collapses into exhaustion and a series of muffled cries, achieved through the unforgettable sound of muted strings playing fortissimo. Eventually, these die away to a single clarinet, ending the piece enigmatically. In some ways, I haven’t heard a more conventional piece by Sheng. It lacks his usual strong profile, but it’s still a poetic, moving work.

Tibetan Swing and Red Silk Dance both share Tibetan dance as their inspiration. Tibetan Swing intrigued me just by reading the title. However, it has nothing to do with Duke Ellington. It refers to Tibetan dancers who swoop up their long sleeves from the ground to overhead. Tibetan music is often heavily rhythmic and the steps involve stamping. Both pieces successfully blend Asian and Western elements—the strong beats and emphasis on melody of Tibetan music and a vigorous, electrifyingly rough counterpoint from the West. At times, the music reminded me of early Stravinsky, although much more stark. Both pieces hammer at you and provide respite with long, serene passages, before ramping up again. For me, Red Silk Dance edges out Tibetan Swing, but preferring one to the other seems a mug’s game. Both have a great chance of becoming classic works.

Schwarz and his Seattlonians do their usual good work. Everything is clear. The loud parts have a great deal of energy. If Schwarz has a flaw, it’s his inability to make much of reflective passages. Sheng, a percussionist, not only pounds the ivories for all they’re worth, he also manages to suggest quieter instruments like the flute and the pi’ pa. Certainly, he knows what he wants from his music. Shana Blake Hill heroically tackles whatever fiendish challenge Sheng throws her way, but Sheng has given her very little with which to touch a listener. He should send her a roomful of flowers at least. Overall, one of the best releases in Naxos’s Sheng mini-series.

Glyn Pursglove
MusicWeb International, November 2009

Bright Sheng brings to his music the kind of multi-cultural background that is now common in the modern world—and will surely become even more common. Born in Shanghai, Sheng moved to New York in 1982 and has, for some time, been The Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor at the University of Michigan. In his youth, the Cultural Revolution banished him to the Chinese countryside, in the province of Qinghai, near Tibet (during which exile he took the opportunity to add a familiarity with traditional Chinese instruments to his training in the Western classical tradition).

Red Silk Dance is effectively a single movement piano concerto, outer sections lively and percussive, even raucous, the quieter central section featuring a treatment for piano of an Asian melody for flute, supported by muted strings. Cheng apparently had in mind the Silk Road and its role in religious, cultural and mercantile exchanges. I’m not sure that I can hear quite such a specific reference in the music, though it is fair to say that the music enacts the interchange of musical idioms, with echoes of Chinese music, the music of the middle east, Bartók, and more; the results are engaging and vivid, if not especially profound.

The title of Tibetan Swing refers, not to Fats Waller or Count Basie, but to the way in which the dresses of Tibetan women move in their dancing. The rhythms are insistent and—like those of Waller or Basie—do get the foot tapping. A bass drum, congas and bongos are prominent (characteristically of Sheng the music of one culture is evoked on the instruments of other cultures). The passages which make use of flutter-tonguing in the brass section add another layer of excitement.

H’un was one of the works which first brought Sheng to public attention in the West, not least when Kurt Masur conducted it on several occasions with the New York Philharmonic in 1993. The Chinese word ‘h’un’ means lacerations, wounds, scars and remains. Though the musical language (which is predominantly atonal) is abstract rather than programmatic, the work unmistakably takes as its subject the ravages of the Cultural Revolution. Its searing and explosive music offers an undeniably effective musical representation of human brutality, especially in (roughly speaking) the first half of its nearly twenty-three minutes. The second half seems to shift its emphasis to the consequences of that brutality, to the lacerating loneliness of its victims, to the scars they are compelled to bear thereafter. H’un isn’t the subtlest piece of musical denunciation (for all the considerable complexity of its construction, as discussed by the composer himself in an article in Perspectives of New Music, Volume 33) but it has a real enough power.

The Phoenix was co-commissioned by the Seattle Symphony and the Danish national Orchestra, designed to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Hans Christian Anderson and written with Jane Eaglen in mind as the soloist. Sheng sets a version of Anderson’s short story about the Phoenix, in a rather stilted prose of his own phrasing—couldn’t a real writer have prepared the text? The phoenix exists in many cultures—Chinese, Japanese, Egyptian, Roman, Persian, Arabian, European etc. Sheng interprets it as a kind of universal emblem and source of inspiration, as, in a sense, the power of music itself. The soprano soloist here is Shana Blake Hill, who makes a pretty good job of the considerable technical demands of the role, with many large leaps. There is more than a little of the bombastic about Sheng’s work here and, though there is some interesting enough word-painting at points in the text, there are also quite a few passages where it is hard to detect any necessary relationship between the orchestral music and the vocal part.

It is perhaps in the nature of so eclectic (for properly good reasons) a composer as Sheng is, that working without a stable and coherent idiom, there will be an element of hit-and-miss to the musical results. Sometimes the results can be exciting and thought-provoking; sometimes they can fall rather flat. The Phoenix doesn’t fully achieve an inner coherence and is perhaps the least satisfying work in this programme.

Colin Clarke
Fanfare, September 2009

The celebratory piece for soprano and orchestra, The Phoenix (2004), was written for the centennial of the Seattle Symphony and the 200th birthday of Hans Christian Andersen. …The soprano soloist, Shana Blake Hill, is a real discovery. She seems totally unfazed by Sheng’s cruel demands. This is a magnificently written work… © 2009 Fanfare Read complete review

Phil Muse, August 2009

The scintillating performance by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra under Gerard Schwarz, a longtime champion of contemporary music, of four works by Bright Sheng (b. Shanghai, 1955) show clearly why this composer is a great favorite among present-day musicians. He has a penchant for treating traditional instruments of the orchestra in non-traditional ways that today’s generation of young musicians find stimulating and challenging. And his rhythmic vocabulary will keep everyone (the audience included) on their toes.

Red Silk Dance is a good introduction to Sheng’s heady exploration of inter-cultural connections. We envision a caravan slowly wending along the Silk Road that was the ancient link between East and West. A percussion duet between piano and timpani recalls the sound of male Tibetan dancers stamping their feet. Sheng has the performers use hard wooden mallets for the drums, contrasted to accented parallel octaves in the piano, played by Sheng himself as a percussive instrument. A slow interlude has the pianist playing a central Asian flute-inspired melody against a backdrop of muted strings. The only melodious music in the piece, it is interrupted by a miasma of blaring brass. The piano responds with angular leaps and more percussive sounds, culminating in sweeping glissandi.

The title Tibetan Swing refers not to swingtime rhythm, much less an evocation of a pretty girl in a swing, but to the dances of Tibetan women in flowing costumes with long sleeves that brush the ground and swing into the air, accentuating the dance with their swirling patterns of motion. Sheng, a percussionist himself, gives a major role to the sounds of congas, bongos and a bass drum struck with the hand alone. The power of the music increases as more families of the full orchestra become engaged. The composer calls for flutter-tonguing in the brass to add excitement. At the climax, sensational glissandi in the trombones evoke the awesome tones of Tibetan temple horns. The string reintroduce the basic dance motif, and the music swells to a sweeping close.

The Phoenix, for soprano and orchestra, recounts the legend of the fabulous bird that rises from its own ashes. Sheng uses the version in the Tales of Hans Christian Andersen, which he had first encountered in Chinese translation as a child. The work was commissioned by the Seattle Symphony to celebrate its hundredth anniversary in 2004, the year that also marked the 200th birthday of the beloved Danish writer. Sheng chose his story well.

Taking his cue from the suggestion given by Andersen himself, he sees the legend of the Phoenix as a metaphor for the ever-renewing power of music itself to lift up and inspire people in all places and all times. The emotionally charged vocal part is one of the most challenging in the soprano’s repertoire, with its great leaps and chromatic writing. Shana Blake Hill handles her part with composure and assurance, qualities that are especially important given the large sweep and luminous phrasing required by such key words as “bloomed,” “resplendent,” “arise,” “perfume,” and “soar.” Several places in the text provide for instrumental interludes. A reference to the bright eyes of a Hindu girl invites a sitar-like melody accompanied by a string drone. Likewise, Arabia, birthplace of the Phoenix, is conjured up by an octatonic scale and flowing melismas in the woodwinds.

Like Shostakovich, Bright Sheng has been influenced by the tragic events of his time. For the Russian, it was the Stalinist era, in particular the purge trials and the siege of Leningrad, that brought forth stirring musical responses. For Sheng, it was the “Cultural Revolution” in China, a time of upheavals that became seared in the consciousness of the Chinese. “I was one of the millions who were the witnesses, victims, and survivors,” writes Sheng. The title H’un (Lacerations) is a Chinese word with many meanings (wounds, scars, marks, vestiges), all of which are relevant here. Consciously rejecting melodies that he considered “too beautiful” for the context, Sheng based much of his music on the small, dissonant interval of a half-step. The music is often angry, malevolent, expressing both rage and (in a striking passage in which the upper and lower strings play fortissimo at the extreme limits of their range, but muted) the stifling of dissent like a strangled cry.

All but unnoticed amid the dissonance, a brief scrap of melody in the clarinet, amounting to a full step, offers a ray of hope for solace and redemption through music. Composed in 1988 (shortly after Bright Sheng became an American citizen), H’un looks both backward and forward.

Steve Koenig
Acoustic Levitation, July 2009

This is an excellent release in Naxos’ American Composers series. Sheng, born in China, protégé of Leonard Bernstein, is a master orchestrator. He deftly uses eastern and western elements so that his compositions have complete unity, without any whiff of facile chinoiserie used by so many composers of all ethnicities.

He described the Red Silk Dances as “a capriccio for piano and orchestra,” and it does have the energy of that form. Rhythm, colors, excitement abound: these are Sheng’s stock in trade. Following a piano and flute interlude, the work develops with strings and angular wit, then impressionistic piano, ending with weird chimes and a march. Without the least disrespect to this performance, as I listen, I wonder what Dudamel could make the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra achieve with such a piece.

Tibetan Swing uses a timpani tattoo. My hips sway along with the grinding, low basses, first slashed by drums, then stroked by harp, next held aloft by winds, then snaked by French-sounding reeds.

The title track here, The Phoenix, is a modern aria for soprano and orchestra, running twenty-four minutes. With references to Eden, The Ganges, Arabia, the phoenix legend is universalized. Shana Blake Hill’s enunciation is so clear one barely needs the text, which (thank you, Naxos) is printed in the booklet. I’d like to hear what she could do with Barber’s Knoxville.

The interlacing of text and music is exemplary. The only debit here is the stilted edit and translation of the text, done by Sheng himself, more narrative than poetic:

“In Paradise, when thou wert born in the first rose, beneath the Tree of Knowledge, thou receivedst a kiss, and thy right name was given thee—thy name, MUSIC.”

The disc closes with H’un (Lacerations): In Memoriam 1966–76, a reflection on Mao’s Cultural Revolution. (I remember all too clearly, in a trip to China shortly before the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre, meeting the victims of the Cultural revolution: the daughter of a violinist who had his fingers crushed and was forced to do farm work, and a dancer whose toes were broken for embracing Western forms.)

It’s not programmatic in a literal way, but it is a tone poem. Halfway through its twenty-two minute length, a quiet presents itself, hushed, then terrifyingly still and acrid massed strings, as moving in its own way as Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.

There is another performance of H’un on New World which I haven’t heard, but I’ve read that the difference in audio makes this version a clear first choice. The three other works are world première recordings…it would be a disservice to deny yourself these works.

Allen Gimbel
American Record Guide, July 2009

More from MacArthur Fellow Bright Sheng. Red Silk Dance (1999) is an impressive single movement thriller for piano and orchestra. It is in three parts of equal length. The outer sections are bravura, raucous dances in aggressive Chinese-Bartok style. I was reminded of The Miraculous Mandarin more than once. The beautiful central section offers the expected contrast. Mr Sheng is a virtuoso pianist and plays up a storm. Along the same lines, the also raucous Tibetan Swing (2002) refers to “the long decorative sleeves of Tibetan women’s pants costumes” rather than anything jazzy, though the piece does “cook” in its Tibetan way. These women are definitely Cubist, dancing along like seething pentatonic Picassos.

The Phoenix (2004), a large work for soprano and orchestra, was co-commissioned by the Seattle Symphony (for its centennial) and the Danish National Orchestra (for Hans Christian Andersen’s 200th birthday), written for Jane Eaglen as soloist. Sheng chose a short story by Andersen to exploit the Danish connection but constructed his own original text (in English). The story tells of the birth of the resplendent bird in the Garden of Eden under the Tree of Knowledge, its later relocation to Arabia, its journeys around the world, and its habit of incinerating itself once a year. We learn (at the end) that originally, in the Garden of Eden, God kissed the bird, and called her “Music”. Sheng sets the text in hysterical modern music, Bergian style (certainly keeping Ms Eaglen in mind), filled with relentless angular bombast, irrelevant text setting, and poor musical judgement (I’m still trying to figure out what Lulu has to do with this subject). Shana Blake Hill, clearly a major talent but in need of better material, gives a good Jane Eaglen imitation, virtuosic enough; but the end result is not a pleasant thing to listen to. The piece is an overwritten bomb—an unfortunate misstep for this normally interesting composer.

The program closes with the second recording of H’un (Lacerations) (1988), the piece that brought the composer to international attention. (A lengthy study of the piece, by the composer himself, was published in Perspectives of New Music in 1995, which gave him his initial burst of academic prestige; Kurt Masur took the piece on tour with the New York Philharmonic around that time.) The work is a searing remembrance of the dark days of the Cultural Revolution, depicted at the most bloodcurdling, personal level; it bears the subtitle In Memoriam 1966–1976. Schwarz has now recorded it twice, first with the New York Chamber Symphony on New World 80407 (with Sheng chamber and vocal works, released in 1991).

The first half of this 22-minute piece is not for the squeamish. Brutal slaps and moaning combine with Western art music symbolism like descending half-steps, serial-style expressionist explosions, and driving pulsations out of the Rite of Spring. The last half of the piece is a devastating study in isolation: the victims find themselves abandoned and helpless, frozen in their private agonies. This is indeed one of the scariest musical representations of human brutality in the literature.

Steven Ritter
Audiophile Audition, April 2009

Even with the tremendous production values of this disc (has anyone done more for modern music than the Seattle Symphony?) I remain a tad unconvinced by much of Bright Sheng’s music. He has certainly evolved—just compare the jazzy artistry of Tibetan Swing with the downright dour and pessimistic (with good reason) side swipes that come at you in H’un. Actually, in many ways, H’un (“Lacerations”) is the most affecting piece on this disc; it was written to denigrate the Maoist cultural revolution (something that affected the composer profoundly) in the most stringent of terms. The work is atonal and severely penetrating in its unrelenting musical criticism, and one comes away from it feeling not unlike a hearing of the Penderecki Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, only Sheng’s music is more readily accessible.

Red Silk Dance is essentially a piano fantasia, very attractive and rhythmic, an attempt at a not-too literal portrayal of the Silk Road and all of its many peopled varieties. The Phoenix is based on a story of Hans Christian Andersen replete with various middle-easternisms. I guess what bothers me most about some of the music is its episodic qualities; this is very much music of the moment and of the mood, and as a result there are sometimes lapses in quality or a sense of the disconnected between sections. But Sheng is an important voice, and as a recording this one must be marked as almost essential, especially if you are new to the composer, for it provides an ideal introduction to his Janus-like persona over a period of years. Performances are excellent with good Seattle sound, and this might be a nice discovery for some.

James Manheim, April 2009

Shanghai-born, Michigan-based composer Bright Sheng has found unusually flexible ways of embodying distinctively Chinese experiences in his work. He uses Chinese musical materials only subtly in the four orchestral works heard here, but his origins are unmistakable even for the listener with little prior exposure to his music. The earliest music here is also the most serious (and the least oriented toward tonality): H’un (Lacerations): In memoriam 1966–1976, composed in 1988, honors the victims of the Cultural Revolution in China, whose worst effects Sheng escaped thanks to his participation in a government-sponsored music group in Qinghai province. His parents, however, suffered greatly, and the work has depths of gloom to rival those of Shostakovich during the later phases of his career, and perhaps something of the same sense of the persistence of the individual. The first two pieces on the album, evoking the perils of the Silk Road and the vigor of Tibetan folk culture, respectively, are brighter and more oriented toward tonal centers but no less rigorous; the Tibetan “swing” of the second piece is a native dance movement with an associated rhythm that appears in the music, not a reference to jazz. The Phoenix, the most recent work on the program, outwardly has no connection to Chinese culture at all; the text, adapted by the composer, comes from a story by Hans Christian Andersen. But it was very much part of Sheng’s experience: he read Andersen’s tales in Chinese as a child, and, moreover, the phoenix legend has a counterpart in Chinese folklore (as well as that of many other lands). The soprano has a tough job here, with a vocal line featuring large leaps modeled on the syntax of partly biblical prose, all with a sequence of vivid pictorial images going on in the orchestra. Soprano Shana Blake Hill, who performed the work’s premiere, is in command throughout, and the Seattle Symphony under Gerard Schwarz, one of Sheng’s strongest supporters in the orchestral world, delivers sharp readings with a feel for the composer’s delicate use of Asian American idioms. Not a populist, Sheng is nevertheless among the few composers working in academic settings to have directly addressed himself to general concert audiences, and this collection makes a good place for those audiences to begin with his music.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2009

Composition studies concluding with Leonard Bernstein, the Shanghai-born Bright Sheng combines the sounds of his birth place with Western-style music. As a young man he had been banished in China’s Cultural Revolution to a distant rural location, but was fortunate in finding he could continue playing the piano while discovering the use of traditional Chinese instruments. His life in North America has proved highly successful with commissions from many of the major orchestras, the two cultures combining in an impressive catalogue of compositions. One of those came for a works to mark the 2003 Centenary of the Seattle Symphony, Sheng offering an extended work for soprano and orchestra to words of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Bird Phoenix, and in so doing was able to integrate the exotic sounds of the Middle East and India. At times shimmering and with dramatic interjections, Sheng has thrown down a challenge to the technical agility of the soloist, and in Shana Blake Hill he has a superb protagonist. Two years earlier Sheng completed Tibetan Swing, the word ‘swing’ in this context referring to the swinging action in the women’s dresses when dancing. Its strongly based rhythmic content makes for a fascinating work with a powerful percussion-led central section. Red Silk Dance for piano and orchestra uses Tibetan-Chinese influences in highly commercial modern Western dress, Sheng appearing here as the soloist and showing his abundant keyboard brilliance. It was H’un that in 1988 brought Sheng to international attention. The Chinese word can mean ‘laceration’ or ‘wounds’ and was written in memory of all those who perished in the Cultural Revolution. Atonal and not easy to grasp at first hearing, it is a personal cry of pity and anger. The Seattle Symphony, under their inspirational conductor, Gerard Schwarz, is so totally committed to the music that Sheng must be delighted with these excellently recorded performances.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group