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Seen and Heard Prom Review


PROM 38: Sheng & Messiaen, The London Sinfonietta/David Robertson, Royal Albert Hall, Friday 13 August 2004 (AN)


Bright SHENG The Song and Dance of Tears (2003) *UK Première

Yo-Yo Ma (cello)

Wu Man (pipa)

Wu Tong (sheng)

Joel Fan (piano)


Olivier MESSIAEN Turangalîla Symphony (1946-8, rev.1990)

Paul Crossley (piano)

Cynthia Millar (ondes martenot)



If in doubt, go with your instinct: an enduring piece of wisdom that might have saved Bright Sheng’s ill-suited cello, piano, pipa and sheng quadruple concerto: "I can’t; it won’t balance", insisted the composer when Yo-Yo Ma first suggested an ensemble comprising cello, piano and Chinese lute (pipa). Sheng perceived that the soft-spoken pipa would struggle to be heard, but the occasion of the Silk Road experience and a commission from one of the most highly regarded musicians proved too strong a temptation.


The Silk Road project escorted Sheng to his native China, where folk-music investigations in several Western provinces – including the Tibetan-bordering Qinghai – uncovered an exciting wealth of ethnic diversity. The Song of Dance and Tears is therefore a celebration of cross-cultural differences, and Sheng claims to have done this not through direct translation of indigenous musical material but through the far more popular and accessible structures of the Western classical-music medium. In the words of Robert Maycock’s programme notes, ‘Sheng is a composer, not a preservationist.’


To redress the immediate problem of balance, Sheng introduced his namesake Chinese mouth organ (sheng) which, unlike the pipa, would have no trouble projecting. Following this, a standard slow-fast-slow concerto (the movements entitled The Song, The Dance and Tears respectively), with each section indebted to specific folkloric influences such as developed heterophony in the first and Kazakh songs in the last.


A recipe for ideological success, perhaps, but musically undesirable. The instrumental makeup posed the harshest inconsistency, and was never more offensive than during The Song where tremendous performances all round could not mitigate the comical disparity between soloists and orchestra.


The grandiose orchestral introduction promised great things, but measly solo entries soon after made a mockery of it. Yo-Yo Ma’s high-pitched cello lead was ridiculed by the pipa’s incessant plucking. Unsettled intonation from the sheng made a poor comparison with the spotlessly clean orchestral backdrop. Moreover, the range and depth from the London Sinfonietta brought only greater humility on the oriental instruments whose capacity for expression appeared relatively inferior.


Momentary success was to be found in The Dance, whose savage piano toccata nevertheless built into something that bore a striking resemblance to fellow folklorist and acknowledged inspiration Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. But a return to the instrumental incongruity and cheesy Western-oriental drama for concluding Tears confirmed the worst: East lost out to West.


There is also a hint of the exotic in Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony, but unlike The Song, this composition fights one battle at a time: love – and not a myriad of ethnicities and physical complexities – begets the music. Commissioned by composer, conductor and double bassist Serge Koussevitzky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the immediate aftermath of WW2, Messiaen’s Tristan-inspired opus rests his transcendental argument on the shoulders of a modest orchestral force with solo piano and ondes martenot.


Although requisite coughs and splutters and then a mini-exodus after Développement de l’amour would have had us believe otherwise, Turangalîla (literally translating from the Sanskrit as: ‘the play of life and death in the passing of time’) is a symphony in two five-movement parts. The driving component in Messiaen’s passing of time is sex and no amount of euphemisms (i.e. ‘statue’ versus ‘flower’ themes, as presented in the Introduction) can camouflage the shameless orgiastic excess.


David Robertson conducts this tide of languor and chaos to perfection: the score, abundant in notes and sensations, breathes unrestrained and yet ordered under his confident baton. Robertson commands a firm beat and elicits a massive spectrum of sound that takes on all guises from the shrill and unnerving to the tranquil.


Neither ondes nor piano suffer the inconspicuous fate of Sheng’s soloists – Messiaen was a master orchestrator and he was famous for his prodigiously exacting ear that could pick up the slightest mistake from within densely packed musical textures. Pianist Paul Crossley was brilliant in his role as subversive interlocutor and devilish virtuoso, and the eerie cries of the ondes rode high above the orchestral pit, at times reinforcing a particular melody and, at others, adding an ornamental twist of the macabre. This extraordinary mixture of deranged pianist, surreal ondes and passionate orchestra came together for an intoxicating grapple with the unfathomable.


Juxtapositions were negotiated with ease, as in the Chant d’amour 1, where crazed orchestral stamps alternate with spooky ondes-delineated violins. In the midst of the frantic mood and time shifts, the narrative logic never failed to sound out eloquently – through dense textures the music remained lucid.


This concert offered up two compositions whose physical components mixed the old with the new: The Song and Dance of Tears introduced the pipa and the sheng; Turangalîla Symphony gave us the ondes martenot. However an integral point of difference, and one which faulted the former and made a success of the latter, is that of the driving aesthetic. Sheng’s conception is motivated by an anthropological duty and does not see the music for the physical artefacts. Messiaen’s chef-d’oeuvre, on the other hand, thinks in musical terms and embraces universals that reign over and above temporal considerations and inconsistencies. For this reason, Turangalîla and not The Song will stand the test of time and no matter how great the performance, there is nothing that can save Bright Sheng’s cultural hodgepodge.


Aline Nassif


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