Music Review: Prism and Music From China at the Freer Gallery

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

At first glance, the saxophone quartet Prism and the instrumental ensemble Music From China would seem to be strange bedfellows. After all, how compatible can the urbane, brash, smoky, jazzy sax and the delicate, reedy voices of a two-string fiddle (an instrument in the huqin family), a flat-bodied lute (the pipa) or a hammered dulcimer (the yangqin) be? Only the battery of Chinese percussion seemed native to both worlds. At the Freer Gallery's Meyer Auditorium on Sunday, the answer seemed to be that, given the right music, this could be a strangely satisfying collaboration.

Perhaps most successful in this respect, to Western ears, was the three-movement "Songs for Huqin and Saxophone Quartet" by Wang Guowei, in which the astringency of the fiddle soared like a vocal solo over paired saxes playing two octaves apart. Chen Yi's Septet split the two ensembles, with the saxes' energetic punctuation answered antiphonally by the more restrained strings and percussion, and this worked well, too. However, even in pieces where the composers couldn't solve balance and sonority problems as well, or, in the case of Lei Liang's "Yuan," couldn't resist pulling out a whole grab bag of sonic gimmicks, the performances were outstanding.

Prism has made it a mission to commission music for itself and its performing partners, and this program -- all six pieces by Chinese composers, all but one written within the last year and most receiving their premiere performances -- represented a serious commitment to that mission. As admirable as this particular effort is, however, it's hard not to wonder what the chances are that any of this music is going to get performed much.

-- Joan Reinthaler

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