Beyond the Silk Road | Playbill

Classic Arts Features Beyond the Silk Road
Asian composers and conductors are in the spotlight at Great Performers next month.

Lan Shui. Long Yu. Chen Gang and He Zhanhao. Guo Wenjing. Chen Yi. Wu Zuqiang. Hua Yanjun. Learn their names, if you don't know them already. They are contemporary maestros and composers from Asia, and they are coming to Lincoln Center's Great Performers in March.

On Wednesday March 2, Lan Shui leads the Singapore Symphony Orchestra in music of Richard Strauss, Chen Yi, and Chen Gang and He Zhanhao. Soloists are Yo-Yo Ma and Gil Shaham, whose involvement drove the programming. On March 13, Long Yu brings his five-year-old China Philharmonic to Lincoln Center with works of Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninoff, Bartók, Guo Wenjing, and Hua Yanjun and Wu Zuqiang. A soloist, in this case Lang Lang, was again a force behind the programming.

In the three decades since Ma's career took off, the flow of musical genius from Asia (Ma was born in Paris but his parents were Chinese) to "the West" has been impressive. Many Asian soloists have succeeded, but politics‹China's Cultural Revolution in particular‹and the economics of scale have prevented top Asian orchestras from entering the American-European concert music arena. Until now. Post-Mao, China's conservatories are booming, as is the whole Asian marketplace, and that boom includes an embrace of Western classical music.

Meanwhile, Western audiences cheer for Ma, for Lang Lang (born in Shengyang, China in 1982, and representing a new, post-Cultural Revoltion generation), and for many other classical stars of Asian lineage who are playing mostly Western repertory. But few Americans understand the musical traditions to which these virtuosos were born.

Alan Watts, in The Way of Zen, wrote, "Westerners learn music … by restricting the whole range of tone and rhythm to a notation of fixed … intervals…. But the Oriental musician has a rough notation which he uses only as a reminder of a melody." In order to notate Asian sounds, American avant-garde composer Philip Corner used calligraphic pens and brushes, which would "wobble and go from dark to soft…[suggesting] all the modulation and intonation and timbre." Those modulations are addressed by Canadian guitarist and sitarist Harry Manx, who said that, in Western music, "we play from A to B to C to D. [In] Indian music, they play A to a deeper A to an even deeper A."

Does this mean that when Asian orchestras play Western instruments they must restrict their palettes? Hardly. These orchestras simply bring to Western notation a background less regimented and more intuitive than what is learned in the West. Keep in mind also that so-called "Western" music may not be as purely Euro-American as we think. In the case of Rachmaninoff and Rimsky-Korsakov, Russia, at certain times in its history, has seen itself as more Asian than European. As for Bartók, the Magyars have roots in the Middle and Far East. So East and West are less estranged musically than one might assume. The China and Singapore Orchestras will only expand Western audiences' views of these traditions. Let us look first at Chen Yi's Ballad, Dance and Fantasy for cello and orchestra (2003), which is to receive its New York premiere with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

Chen's three-movement work is a collaboration with her soloist, Ma, who determined fingering and bowing. The instrumentation is Western, but Chen's musical, spiritual, and geographic inspirations come from the East: "Tracing back to the ancient culture on the Silk Road," says Chen, speaking of the legendary trade route used so fruitfully as a touchstone by Ma, "I treasure the spirit of the eastern earth while walking into the rest of the world, and look forward to the peace in the future." Ancient folk music of China and Mongolia provide raw materials for the composer.

Chen shares the Singapore program with Don Juan and the Rosenkavalier Suite of Richard Strauss, and with The Butterfly Lovers, a single-movement violin concerto by Chen Gang and He Zhanhao. The two were Shanghai conservatory students when they co-wrote the concerto that would become one of the most celebrated pieces of Asian music written for a Western orchestra. Their melodies and style, however, owe a debt to Chinese opera, and Shaham will use a technique like that used to play a Chinese two-stringed fiddle.

Collaborations figure in the China Philharmonic program as well. For his Moon Reflections, Wu Zuqiang adapted work of the Taoist street musician Hua Yanjun, a.k.a. "Blind Abing," who died in 1950. Wu, once one of Chen Yi's professors, received musical training in 1950s Moscow, and many of his orchestrations combine Western and Eastern instruments. The China Philharmonic program also features Das Lied von der Erde‹a title coincidentally appropriate for Chen's concerto‹as adapted by Guo Wenjing. So Mahler's masterpiece, based on Chinese texts, comes full circle. And we might note that Mahler, as a European Jew, must have had in his ears and in his blood the "Oriental" music of the Middle East.

Finally, the China Philharmonic will play three "Western" works: the overture to Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride; Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini; and Bartók's suite from the violent, sexually charged pantomime, The Miraculous Mandarin. The plot of the pantomime implies much about the relationship between East and West. Thieves force a young woman to act as bait for wealthy men whom the thieves then rob and kill. But they cannot defeat the Chinaman of the title. He stays alive to make love to the young woman and then dies.

Western artists have often used figures from the East to embody danger, mystery, and power. But the East is not "foreign" to the West. Nor, in spite of linguistic and cultural differences, is it unknowable. The jets that will bring the Singapore Symphony and China Philharmonic to Great Performers have simpler antecedents that moved not only people and goods, but ideas and music over the Silk Road, and beyond. The West often speaks of "opening up" a country or a region diplomatically or economically. Artistically, though, that culture may have, in some primal way, already reached Westerners, who are more ready for these extraordinary evenings of music than we may think.

David Pratt writes frequently for Playbill.

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