predictably sparse crowd showed up for An Evening with Cio-Lang Lin
Thursday night (July 10), the Aspen Music Festival's weekly opportunity
for a featured artist to program his own selections of chamber music
with musicians of his choosing. Despite the Taiwan-born American violinist's
popularity here in Aspen, and his long-standing relationship with the
Aspen Music Festival, many of his fans must have been scared away by
his menu of "one-date" composers (i.e., only the "born" year because
they're still living), even if two of them were the highly communicative
Philip Glass and Tan Dun. Aspen programs plenty of contemporary and
20th-century music, but it's often shoehorned between Mozart and Brahms
to keep the grumpier members of the audience from departing the scene.
Or perhaps those who stayed away weren't ready for a program featuring
the Chinese pipa, a lute-like instrument that obviously had nothing
to do with Schubert or Tchaikovsky.
who filled approximately two sections of the eight in the Benedict Music
Tent responded enthusiastically to the music, especially an appropriately
theatrical presentation of Tan Dun's 1994 work Ghost Opera. Written
for a string quartet plus pipa, the players double on such odd instruments
as water bowls, bowed gongs, Chinese cymbals, giant sheets of paper
and rocks. They also sing, shout and apply Chinese theatrical stylizations
to lines from Shakespeare's The Tempest as they move about the
stage. Starting time, usually 6 p.m., was pushed back to 7:30 so the
tent would be dark enough after intermission for Ghost Opera's
theatrical lighting, which sometimes suggests Chinese shadow puppetry.
This is definitely a piece to see, not just hear. Listening to the CD,
I never got it. Watching the players as they floated around the stage
and performed on the various extra-musical instruments, it all came
together in a strange but wonderful way.
from the theatrical amalgam, Dun's cross-cultural ideas borrow from
western music in the form of the C# minor prelude from Book II of J.S.
Bach's The Well-Tempered Klavier and eastern music with the Chinese
folk song "Little Cabbage." Both ideas mesh with theatrical elements,
one moment sweet and pure, the next in a clash of dissonances. It moves
along, never flagging, often hauntingly beautiful. In performance, the
key contributions are from the pipa, from which Wu Man coaxed an astonishing
range of sounds and moods, and the cello, played by Kristina Reiko Cooper,
now a member of Quartetto Gelato. The dialogues between the pipa and
cello seemed to be the main threads in Tan Dun's musical fabric.
program opened with composer Chen Yi's Ning for Pipa, Violin and
Cello, written for a 2001 concert of reconciliation between China
and Japan. In it, the composer gives vent to her rage over a World War
II Japanese massacre of Nanking, symbolized by the Chinese character
ning. It is a savage piece, drawing harsh strums from the pipa
that sound like death rattles amidst dissonant counterpoint in the strings.
Long cadenzas, first by the pipa, then the cello and finally the violin,
give the musicians plenty of scope for beauty as well. It finally resolves
with a high, graceful Chinese-inflected melody played by the violin
as a world premiere, Philip Glass' Music from "The Sound of a Voice"
is a five-movement suite extracted from his opera on a play by David
Henry Hwang. The opera had its premiere in May in Cambridge, Massachusetts,
with an ensemble of pipa, flute, cello and percussion, Glass added the
violin part to carry the lines sung by the missing voices. The music
contains very little of the chugging, minimalist style most associated
with Glass. Instead it's extremely episodic, with some of the episodes
lasting only three or four bars. Glass reveals a flair for denser, more
complex harmonies than he's usually given credit for. Even so, I think
my favorite excerpt was the fourth of five, a slow, charming piece in
which the melody floats from one instrument to the next. Flutist Nadine
Asin, a regular with the New York Philharmonic, and Charles Haas, principal
percussionist of the American Symphony, contributed sensitive and beautiful
Anton Nel joined Lin, Wu and Cooper on Sabah (Morning, Tomorrow and
Sojmthing in the Future) by the Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh.
Also a world premiere, this found the pipa virtuoso making her instrument
sound like a balalaika in spots and Nel creating percussion effects
on a prepared piano. It was also the most rhythmic piece of the night.
the end, the lasting impression was Wu Man's pipa playing. This is an
artist of extraordinary dimensions.