At Sackler, a dreamlike brew of Chinese music


Wintergreen Kunqu Society's presentation of “Dreaming of the Phoenix” at Sackler Gallery. (Cindy Rodney)
August 19, 2013

It’s been a good summer for anyone even remotely interested in Chinese music, with nearly a dozen performances of both traditional and contemporary works at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery. The miniseries, built around the theme of the mythological phoenix, ended this weekend with four performances of the rarely heard musical poetry theater known as kunqu, and its high point may have come on Sunday with “Dreaming of the Phoenix” — a work by the young composer Du Yun that bridged thousand-year-old traditions and modern sensibilities with deft, perceptive grace.

Kunqu is the oldest surviving form of Chinese opera, and “Dreaming” — the first part of a longer work called “Moonlight Meditation” — opened with a spare and almost ancient sense of ritual, the six white-clad musicians entering the stage one by one to a haunting melody on a bamboo flute.

In fact, the entire piece felt steeped in ritual, as if to evoke a long-vanished world. Du Yun’s delicate and ethereal score — for singer, flutes, percussion, pipa, zither and MacBook Pro — was unmistakably rooted in traditional Chinese music, and its lyrics were drawn from poetry hundreds, or even thousands, of years old. But this wasn’t just an exercise in nostalgia. As it evoked woodland spirits, soaring phoenixes, distant battlegrounds and delicate images of nature, the work seemed to come alive with the shimmering mystery of a half-remembered dream — a reverie of the past, in a thoroughly modern mind.

Much of the work’s impact came from its superb, virtuosic performance. Singer Qian Yi — who also wrote the story line — danced and sang with quiet eloquence at the center of the ensemble, while the composer herself manned the MacBook’s more contemporary sonics. Chen Tao turned in impeccable playing on both transverse and end-blown wooden flutes, but perhaps the finest playing came from Zhou Yi, whose solo on the pipa provided the most breathtaking moments of the afternoon.

Brookes is a freelance writer.


Vocalist Zhou Yi also plays the pipa (lute) and gu-qin (zither). (Kent Heiles)
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