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Jin Yin
ZHOU Long (b. 1953)
Five Elements [23:24]
CHEN Yi (b. 1953)
Night Thoughts [8:37]
LU Pei (b. 1956)
Scenes Through Window [16:03]
Vivian FUNG (b. 1975)
Bird Song [9:41]
YAO Chen (b. 1976)
Emanations of Tara [19:03]
Yihan Chen (pipa), Cynthia Yeh (percussion), Emma Gerstein (flute and piccolo), Civitas Ensemble
rec. 2018/2019, Anne and Howard Gottlieb Hall, Merit School of Music, Chicago; Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, University of Chicago
CEDILLE CDR90000193 [77:19]

Jin Yin (“Golden Tone”) celebrates the musical cross-fertilization between China and the USA. The recording includes works by five composers with a musical foot, as it were, in both countries, performed by several US-based musicians, several of whom are of Chinese descent. Civitas Ensemble was formed in 2011 by four musicians currently working in Chicago, and for what appears to be their first commercial recording (although it is not labelled as such), they are joined by Chinese-born, US resident pipa player, Yihan Chen, Taiwan-born Principal Percussionist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and orchestra’s Chicago-born second flute, Emma Gerstein.

Zhou’s Five Elements was originally composed in 2008 as a concerto for flute and western orchestra, in which guise it was recorded by Sharon Bezaly and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra with Lan Shui on BIS in 2011. This new version for flute/piccolo, clarinet, percussion, pipa, violin and cello was made in 2014 and given its premiere by the Civitas Ensemble. The difference between the two is so stark as to make them almost totally different works. While the orchestral version inhabits a world of flowing, subtle, delicate, and atmospheric textures, there is an altogether edgier feel to the chamber version, which, even allowing for the presence of traditional Chinese percussion instruments and the pipa, has a much more vivid Chinese flavour to it. The five elements which, in Chinese thought, represent (in the words of the composer) “the various stages of transformation in the recurring natural cycles of seasonal change, growth and decay, climatic conditions, and human physiology” are Metal, Wood, Water, Fire and Earth. Each is attributed its own distinct movement in the work, and, as we might expect, in the case of Metal and Wood, these is an emphasis in the scoring on instruments made of these respective elements. The pipa, in particular, provides a tangibly metallic twang as it strikes the opening blows of the first movement; although, perhaps (pardon the pun) ironically, what was played by a metal flute solo in the original, now sounds out frequently on one of the wooden (string) instruments. What is most memorable about the second movement as played by this chamber ensemble is its vitality and tireless energy; after all, as Zhou writes, in Chinese philosophy, wood “is associated with vigour and youth”. What this smaller, tighter ensemble brings to the remaining three elements is some highly concentrated playing (especially in the intense third movement), along with much sharper detail and transparency of textures. I would not like to be without either version, not least because both are superbly performed by musicians who have an instinctive feel for this highly spiced music.

Composed in 2004 and originally scored for flute cello and piano (which version was recorded by the Meininger Trio on Profil), Chen Yi’s Night Thoughts is her musical response to a poem by the major Chinese poet of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), Li Bai. In that original, the nocturnal mood is vividly evoked by the flute and cello against twinkling piano textures. Here we have a version made by the composer in 2019 for the Civitas Ensemble, and while on paper it seems that all that has been changed is the substitution of the violin for the flute, in fact this, too, has undergone a significant and fundamental change. Violinist Yuan-Qing Yu, cellist Kenneth Olsen and pianist Winston Choi evoke a very different, but equally nocturnal, atmosphere, while the most obvious transformation is the sense of violin and cello at times intertwining so tightly that they merge almost into a single instrument. The dynamic range seems broader and the climaxes more vividly underlined in this highly impressive performance.

Lu Pei’s Scenes Through Window was inspired by rap music and originally written in 2007 for erhu, pipa and piano trio. In this work the composer set out to combine “rap’s repetition with Chinese folk elements”. In 2019 he made this version for the Civitas Ensemble in which the two Chinese instruments are substituted by flute and clarinet. The effect is to make it sound, with its jagged, off-beat jazzy rhythms and insistent repetition of certain figures, a bit like middle-period Stravinsky with a faint oriental whiff. But while the Chinese folk elements seem to have been substantially diluted in this new version, it does emphasise its strong references to American minimalism. The incisive energy of the players, underpinned by Choi’s restless piano, and occasionally given a certain mellowness by the clarinet of the Ensemble’s fourth permanent member, Lawrie Bloom, combined with the music’s vitality, vividly dramatic gestures and strong sense of direction and purpose, make this a most impressive performance of an exceptionally fine new work.

The final two works on the disc are by a younger generation of Chinese composers, both currently in their 40s. Vivian Fung’s Bird Song, composed in 2012 for violinist Kirsten Lee and pianist Conor Hanick, is full of impressionistic gestures and exudes the delicacy and subtleness of Chinese watercolours. The birds are picturesquely evoked with fluttering violin figures which are occasionally taken up by the piano. As it proceeds, so the writing becomes ever more virtuoso and challenging for the players, tailored, it would seem, for the special talents of Lee and Hanick. But both Yu and Choi are recognised virtuosi in their own right, and respond to this challenge with some highly impressive playing, making a powerful case for this striking work.

Emanations of Tara is a seven movement, 20-minute work written in 2014 shortly after Yao Chen’s return to his native China following a period of study and teaching in the USA. Scored for pipa, violin, cello, clarinet and piano, with the addition of bass clarinet and two prayer bowls played by the members of the ensemble, the work may consciously combine Chinese and Western instruments as symbolic cross-culturalism, but more than that, Yao’s musical language is an aural melting pot of both cultures. From the Chinese we get the insistent repetitions and extreme bendings and manipulations of pitch, as well as the metallic ringing of the prayer bowls which symbolically introduce moments of reflection, while from the Western traditions we get the strong harmonic and rhythmic roots as well as the extreme technical virtuosity. There is a sense of continually evolving colours – something which belies the relatively modest forces of the instrumental line up – and, as a performance, the Civitas Ensemble and Yihan Chen prevent a powerfully committed and compelling performance of a work which describes itself as “a search for transcendence”.

Marc Rochester

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