The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday, November 4, as part of the Ancient Paths, Modern Voices festival.
The program’s concept is fascinating: two works by major Western composers drawing on an exotic, imagined China and two works by major contemporary Chinese composers tying together Western and Eastern musical traditions. Together, the pieces get at the way China appears in the Western musical canon and how that’s changing now that the “Western musical canon” isn’t so monolithic. Perhaps that sounds academic, but the concert was anything but. Vibrant and intricate, the music was enormously beguiling and beautifully performed—a fitting entry in Carnegie Hall’s festival celebrating Chinese culture.
I’m familiar with all four composers represented at the concert, but I had never heard these particular pieces, so that alone was a treat. I especially enjoyed Stravinsky’s Chant du rossignol suite, composed using material from his China-set chamber opera Le rossignol, a transitional work begun during the folk-influenced, primitivist era of The Rite of Spring but completed around the time Stravinsky began to turn toward neoclassicism. As a bridge between styles, Chant du rossignol is striking: neither as (seemingly) wild as Rite nor as stark as, say, Symphony of Psalms, it has its own crystalline beauty, with lovely birdsong passages that Messiaen himself would appreciate. Furthermore, Stravinsky was a brilliant orchestrator, particularly for woodwinds, for which he had a real affinity, and Rossignol puts that on brilliant display. (No doubt it helped that the Saint Louis soloists were superb.)
Tan Dun is probably best known for his Oscar-winning score to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (which I adore), and in Water Concerto, you can hear some of the same bending pitches and sonorous melodies and dramatic percussion. The concerto’s hook, however, is Tan’s use of water as the featured instrument. To evoke Tan’s childhood memories of rural life alongside a river, the soloist splashes and pours water in a bowl; strikes submerged blocks, glasses, and gongs; and plays a waterphone (“an instrument with a pipe full of water surrounded by spikes of varying lengths, stroked with a bow,” according to the New York Times—I couldn’t figure out what the hell it was). At times, I felt Tan’s subtleties were eluding me—despite the soloist’s obviously practiced movements, I only heard a lot of semi-rhythmic splashing—but when he moved on to pitched instruments altered by water, I warmed to the piece, and the climax—literally a small waterfall of sound—is charming.
Over the past few years, I’ve heard a few of Bright Sheng’s works—a folk-influenced piece for solo viola and the evocative score for a short ballet—and to be honest, Colors of Crimson was my least favorite of these. I remember appreciating Sheng’s sensitive use of strings (pretty much a necessity for a viola solo) in the previous two, but Crimson features solo marimba, thus neutralizing my favorite aspect of his compositional work. The program notes quote Sheng on the challenge of writing for an instrument with a “small range of timbral variety” (to put it mildly), but despite his best efforts, and those of percussionist Colin Currie (also the soloist in Water Concerto), the piece wore out its welcome with me. It felt dramatic but flatly so compared to the vibrant color of the other three works on the program.
The Bartók work, a suite on his music for the macabre pantomime-ballet The Miraculous Mandarin, is nothing if not colorful, though sometimes in an uncomfortably “exotic” style. The ballet tells the horrific story of a band of thieves who use a young woman as bait, eventually ensnaring a man in Eastern dress, the Mandarin of the title. The thieves beat, stab, and hang the Mandarin, but he remains magically unharmed, glowing with an eerie blue light, until the woman kisses him. Only then does he die, bleeding, in an ecstastic liebestod (love-death). Bartók’s music for that sordid tale is appropriately violent, with brutal rhythms, angular melodies, aggressive dissonance—not my favorite of his but effective and vivid and well performed by the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.
In no way do the four works create any kind of cohesive picture of China—Stravinsky is telling a fairytale, Bartók is all goth, and Tan and Sheng are recalling personal memories—but the very lack of cohesion is sort of the point, I think. And musically, the pieces do work together, because in their own way, on their own terms, Tan and Sheng are heirs to Stravinsky and Bartók, who, after all, also manipulated the classical orchestra to conjure up folk tunes and styles from their own countries of origin. Certainly there’s more distance between that traditional orchestra and China than between it and Russia or Hungary, but that only makes the grace and conviction and creativity with which Tan and Sheng have bridged West and East all the more impressive and meaningful.