The Chinese produce, we consume. Such is true for the world, and so was the case in microcosm on Thursday at the Meyer Auditorium of the Freer Gallery where we had a glimpse of what the two countries working in harmonious concert might look like. We heard a program entitled “Sounds of the Dragon” which contained the music of seven composers who might all be considered Chinese-American. The pieces were played by musicians from an American classical ensemble, Music From Copland House, and an ensemble that plays Chinese music, Music From China.
Evidence of Western influence began in the very first piece, The Willows are New, composed by Chou Wen-Chung for piano. Chung’s piece, ably played by Michael Boriskin, is based upon an older piece of Chinese music. Yet it sounds like one of the drier miniatures from Messiaen or Kurtag. And the evidence of that influence was only strengthened by The Points, a solo piece by Chen Yi written for an instrument called the pipa (think a cross between mandolin and lute). The program told us that the music’s pointillistic plucks are based upon the strokes of Chinese calligraphy, but what emerged was one helluva solo showpiece.
The instrumentalist, Chen Yihan, is a charismatic performer of exceptional virtuosity. In her hands, the pipa could sound like Eddie van Halen’s guitar. Similar things might be said about the alternately spare Coplandesque scoring and ferocious bebop inflections of Four Movements for Piano Trio by Bright Sheng. The musicians of Music From Copland House sounded far more comfortable with its ferocity. Mr. Boriskin’s piano was louder than his partners throughout, and one could not always hear the violin and cello lines to properly judge the piece. But at its best, the fast passages had all the rhythmic vitality of bebop. A piece entitled Taiping Gu, a duet for erhu (think Chinese viol) and cello by Zhou Long, smoked like a Mark O’Connor/Yo-Yo Ma duet - elegantly written and wonderfully played by erhu player Wang Guowei and cellist Thomas Kraines. Perhaps the most Chinese sounding piece of the whole program was its finale, Scenes Through The Window, by Lu Pei - a beautifully lush piece for erhu, pipa and piano trio. But even in this piece, the Chineseness seemed tinted through the windows of Phillip Glass, and in the program Mr. Pei claimed that the piece was inspired by rap music.
This concert also contained two world premieres. One was of a piece called Study and Variation on a Pythagorean Tuning by Eli Marshall, an American composer living in China. This piece is based on the concept of alternate tunings, a practice rarely found in Western Music. The resulting piece included many micro-tones sounding extremely close together, a sound quite uncomfortable to the ears. I would venture a guess that this is precisely the composer’s intention, in which case he succeeded admirably. The other premiere was of Tea House II, a composition by Music From China’s own erhu player, Mr. Guowei. The piece demonstrates Mr. Guowei to be a composer of great vitality who almost seems afraid of his powers. Time and again, his composition built up huge momentum, only to stop quite suddenly for quiet sections that were not nearly as full of ideas.