Chinary UNG (b.1942)
Water Rings Overture (1993) [6:46]
Anicca (1970) [8:27]
Antiphonal Spirals (1995) [11:03]
Singing Inside Aura (2013) [14:34]
Grand Spiral: Desert Flowers Bloom (1991) [13:19]
Susan Ung (viola and voice)
Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose
rec. Jordan Hall, Boston, MA, 11 June 2012 (Water Rings), 2 July 2013 (Anicca, Antiphonal Spirals) and 3 July 2013 (Grand Spiral) and Merrimack College in North Andover, MA, 18 February 2013 (Singing Inside Aura)
BMOP/SOUND 1044 [54:10]
Although he has composed — and still does — a lot of chamber works, Chinary Ung achieved international acclaim when his superb orchestral work Inner Voices (1986) was awarded the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in 1989. A recording of that piece was on Argo 444 560-2 which has been reissued as Phoenix PHCD171. This was my first encounter with his music and it made me curious to hear more of it. By now his music is reasonably accessible through several discs of chamber music from Bridge including Vol. 3 reviewed here and vols 1 (Bridge 9277) and 2 (Bridge 9321). This recent release from BMOP/Sound explores his orchestral music although Inner Voices has not been added into the bargain; a shame as there is space. Anyway this beautifully produced, engineered and performed disc provides a fair survey of his orchestral output over a period of forty years.
The earliest work here is Anicca completed in 1970 when Ung was a student of Chou Wen-chung at Tanglewood. Anicca is the Pali word that refers to the Buddhist principle of impermanence, This is 'translated' into music as a series of “textural panels that soon dissolve, replaced by new ideas, until a final coalescence absorbs a short rhythmic fragment that spins out in an energetic flourish dominated by winds and percussion” (Adam Greene). The best image to keep in mind may be that of a quickly changing colourful kaleidoscope. This is a brilliant orchestral essay and it is hard to think that this was Ung's first venture in writing for large orchestral forces, so assured is his handling of them. The music may sound more modern than that of the other works here but the sheer imagination and vitality of the orchestral writing has one forgetting about the complexity of the piece.
Grand Spiral: Desert Flowers Bloom (1991), Water Rings Overture (1993) and Antiphonal Spirals (1995) were composed close to each other. They certainly share a number of characteristics and clearly display Ung's orchestral mastery to the full. Grand Spiral was originally composed for the Arizona State University symphonic band and is heard here in its orchestral version. Since it was meant for young performers the music is rather simpler and more straightforward although by no means 'written down'. This is the sort of work that should appeal to orchestras and audiences alike: it is brightly coloured, rhythmically alert and immediately engaging. To a certain extent, too, the short Water Rings Overture is the perfect concert-opener for much the same reasons although the music may be somewhat more taxing for the performers. In spite of its title, Antiphonal Spirals does not call for any particular lay-out of the orchestra. It rather suggests the “spiralling of the melodic material” which is at the very foundation of much of Ung's music. He has composed at least nine pieces all sharing the 'spiral' title (review).
The most recent work here is Singing Inside Aura for vocalizing violist and chamber orchestra. It was completed as recently as 2013. Ung's music often reflects on the Cambodian music which he heard in his childhood. This he thoroughly studied when the country was under the dictatorship of the Khmer Rouge as an exorcism of sorts for not being able to travel back to his country of birth. His orchestral music – as heard here – alludes to Cambodian music rather than quotes from it. However Singing Inside Aura is probably one of his most personal and deeply felt love-songs to Cambodian folk music. The soloist is requested to sing while playing though it does not come quite clearly through whether the violist sings words or makes mere vocal sounds chosen for their musical integration into the work's inner fabric. In any event the lasting impression left by this gripping and moving work is one of ritual. This impression is aided by the rather rough, raucous vocal delivery of the soloist. What one hears may sound awkward to non-Cambodian ears but considering that the soloist here is the composer's wife, that is presumably what the composer wants us to hear.
This is a very fine release of colourful, often beautiful music that clearly deserves to be heard. These performances, presumably under the composer's supervision, are fully committed and the recording is superb even when heard on a standard CD player as mine.