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Resonating Colours 5
The Hong Kong Composers’ Guild
rec. 1991-2017 NAVONA RECORDS NV6242 [73:35]
The generation of Chinese composers brought up under the shadow of the Cultural Revolution and who studied and have mostly settled in the USA – Tan Dun, Bright Sheng, Zhou Long, Chen Yi and Guo Wenjing - have been the international face of new Chinese music for long enough for each now be recognised as established mainstream composers. A new generation is now emerging, and the Hong Kong Composers’ Guild is actively promoting the work of its own members who, brought up in post-1997 Hong Kong, seem more comfortable with their Chinese-ness than were their British-era predecessors. Political strife and mass demonstrations currently rocking Hong Kong remind us that the relationship between the former British colony and its new masters in Beijing are not always easy, but such issues are not evident in the works on this disc, most of which integrate Chinese and Western ideas with ease. Many of these pieces rehearse the same experiments in texture and sound which young composers have been engaged with in Europe and America since the 1960s, but you only need to scratch the surface lightly to reveal in them the strong influence of Chinese traditional art and culture. Almost all of the pieces have a non-musical impetus, which is a direct descendent of the blatant picture-paining which was the driving force behind the Chinese symphonic music of the 1920s, but among this young generation of composers such picture-painting and evocation of traditional concepts is rather more subtle and ingeniously integrated into a decidedly internationalist musical idiom. In the 1950s and 1960s the label “Made in Hong Kong” was associated with tat and shoddy workmanship; in the 21st century, that same label seems now to be associated with musical imagination and accomplished workmanship.
The big work here, in every sense of the word, is Wong Chun-wai’s highly atmospheric and expansive Clouds in Twilight. Written for the Hong Kong Composers’ Showcase in 2015, which was mentored by Bright Sheng who conducts the performance recorded here, Wong reveals a deft hand at writing for large orchestra. Since then he has been commissioned to write more orchestral music by the HK Phil, who offer up on this disc a beautifully rich account of Clouds in Twilight. The musical landscape here is lushly romantic, but that does not stop a clear and original mind shining though, not so much in the musical language as in the highly imaginative scoring for a large symphony orchestra and a clever use of texture to depict what Wong recalls was a “mesmerizing sunset”.
Also rooted in the Chinese musical tradition of depicting non-musical images are two very different works from Daniel Ng. An early work, dating from 1991, November Winds is a thoroughly descriptive depiction of the cold east wind during the Winter months, but Ng develops this idea through some fascinating and effective handling of the string quartet medium, and the music transcends the somewhat obvious features of its original inspiration. Written over 20 years later, Prelude II (Wuxing Interaction) takes its inspiration not from a meteorological or physical phenomenon, but from “ancient Chinese cosmology” with its five elements – wind, fire, earth, metal and water. Each of these elements is represented by various gestures from the two guitars, but I have to confess, without the aid of the composer’s written note, I would be hard-pressed to identify which is which. What does emerge, however, is an exhibition of various guitar techniques and effects which are possibly too tersely assembled to produce any real musical substance.
That is not a problem with the generously-proportioned Stretch of Light by Chen Yeung-ping. Scored for five double basses, it takes as its starting point the intervallic pattern found in the Prelude to Bach’s Cello Suite no.1 - although you would never recognise the Bach element in a million years just on the evidence of your ears alone. Instead we have a fascinating and at times intriguing foray into the surprisingly wide–ranging timbral and textural possibilities afforded by such an unusual ensemble.
Drawing on traditional Chinese art forms and philosophies is a recurring feature of much of this music, and in his Dyeing Alex Au is inspired by an article written by the philosopher Mozi over 2200 years ago which observed how material changed when dyed. Following this train of thought into the realms of music, Au gets his three instruments – clarinet, violin and cello – to adapt their various timbres so that they eventually merge into one. It comes across to the ear, however, as a series of unrelated instrumental effects which do not really seem to be leading anywhere in particular.
While the “Lang Lang” phenomenon has been widely recognised as the reason why Chinese students have become so obsessed with the piano, in Hong Kong it was the British Graded Music Examination system which promoted the piano to an extent which saw vast numbers of Hong Kong children playing it. Yet there is a surprising lack of quality piano music emerging from Hong Kong composers, and this disc features just one – Pyrus Flower in Rain – composed in 2010 by Phoebus Lee. A sense of stasis hangs over this series of bell-like chords, set out to express the influence on the composer’s work of “modern art from the ink-and-wash paintings of Wu Guanzhong”. Performed here by the composer, some of the imagery certainly reveals itself, but I wonder if any other performer would be as able to convey these ideas as convincingly as does Lee in this live recording for the Hong Kong classical music radio station, RTHK Radio 4.
Running the piano a distant second in its popularity stakes among Hong Kong music students, the violin is nevertheless an instrument which forges a rather stronger link between the two musical worlds of China and the West. Patrick Chan, who describes himself as a “Hong Kong-American” composer contributes here two works for solo violin; Cross-Currents dates from 2015 and evokes the turbulent waters of a fast-flowing river through “conflicting materials and quick registral displacements of melodic lines”. Its confusing sequence of conflicting patterns is masterly navigated here by Chen Yu-fang, for whom Chan wrote Postcards two years later. This comprises six brief portraits of either a specific personality or an impression of a scene, but it is left to the listener’s own imagination to guess who or what these might be.
Alfred Wong’s Night Poem is possibly the most unashamedly descriptive work here, the haunting cello and dark piano chords a perfect representation of night. There is a certain naivety about its obvious mood-painting, but that is perhaps excusable since Wong wrote it during his under-graduate years. The two players for whom he originally wrote perform it here and successfully elevate its somewhat predictable course with some simply magical playing.
Wong Hok-yeung Alfred: Night Poem for cello and piano (2001) [8:20]
Wolfgang Nüßlein (cello), Mary Wu (piano)
rec.: 8 March 2001, Lee Hysan Concert Hall, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Chan Chin-ting Patrick (b.1986): Cross-Currents for solo violin [8:20] Postcards for solo violin [8:10]
Chen Yu-fang (violin)
rec.: (Cross-Currents) 14 November 2015, Private Studio, Kansas City, USA
rec.: (Postcards) 14 December 2017, Studio 1, Music Instruction Building, Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana.
Lee Kar-tai Phoebus: Pyrus Flower in Rain for solo piano [7:09]
Lee Kar-tai Phoebus (piano)
rec.: 30 November 2013 (live). Radio 4 Studio, RTHK, Hong Kong
Chen Yeung-ping (b.1983): Stretch of Light for contrabass quintet [10:48]
UCSD Bass Ensemble (Mark Dresser, Matthew Kline, Kyle Motl, Thomas Babin and Timothy McNally), Chen Yeung-ping, conductor
rec.: 6 March 2015 (live), Conrad Prebys Concert Hall, La Jolia, California
Ng Chun-hoi Daniel (b.1959): Prelude II (Wuxing Interaction) for two guitars [4:27]
Clarence Mak and Ng Chun-hoi Daniel (guitars)
rec.: 6 December 2013. Sheung Wan Civic Centre Theatre, Hong Kong
Au Tin-yung Alex: Dyeing for violin, clarinet and cello (2017) [8:50]
Judith Ring (violin), Paul Roe (clarinet), Martin Johnson (cello)
rec.: 8 October 2017, Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin, Ireland.
Ng Chun-hoi Daniel (b.1959): November Winds for string quartet (1991) [5:32]
Cheung Chung-wang, Ray Tsoi (violins), Kan Pak-kin (viola), Betty Tang (cello)
rec.: 16 July 1991, Radio 4 Studio, RTHK, Hong Kong
Wong Chun-wai (b.1988): Clouds in Twilight for orchestra [11:56]
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Bright Sheng (conductor)
rec.: 9 May 2015. Tseun Wan Town Hall Auditorium, Hong Kong