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S & H Festival Review

Aspen Festival 2003: 7-11 chinese music (HS)


A 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.

Those 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.

Aside 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.

The 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 and cello.

Listed 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 playing.

Pianist 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.

In the end, the lasting impression was Wu Man's pipa playing. This is an artist of extraordinary dimensions.

Harvey Steiman



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