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China Now & America Now: The Triumph of Layered Fusion

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Wed Oct 2nd, 2019

Conductor Jindong Cai and TON Orchestra

Artistic and cultural history was made last night at Carnegie Hall with the performance of a monumental orchestral concerto, the U.S. Premiere of Classic of Mountains and Seas (first performed by the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra on June 22 of this year), plus the World Premiere of a grand symphonic oratorio, Men of Iron and the Golden Spike, both composed by Zhou Long, and conducted by Jindong Cai. This extraordinary work was begun by Zhou Long in 2013 with synoptic excerpts from Su Wei’s 1980s opera and stage play of the same title; Su Wei was recruited for the libretto. The Orchestra Now from Bard College performed with notable soloists and 124 choral singers whose throats reverberated with thunderous immediacy through the air at Carnegie Hall. The event was one of several performances in Bard College’s annual China Now Music Festival, this year entitled China and America: Unity in Music. This festival offers a showcase for the vitality of Chinese composers mainly working in this country. The fusion of Western Classical music with Chinese traditional music is currently the most exciting frontier of the moment.

This concert, entitled From the Middle Kingdom to the West, was an astonishing event featuring two compositions which will have an assured place in both Eastern and Western repertoire. Classic of Mountains and Seas evoked the music of five locations in China. This approach resulted in a sampling of various musical styles in China.

The first movement Largo, “Beishan Jing” (North), began with inviting suspense made more deeply mysterious by the bassoon chorus played Carl Gardner, Mathew Gregoire, and Xiaoxiao Yuan. The gaze to the mountains northward brought echoes of traditional Mongolian and Tibetan tunes that marched to a triumphant crescendo led by horns. Percussion, piccolo, and harp gradually propels toward a menacing march (returning to the opening tune), which fades away to the mellow sound of piccolo over double bass. The second movement Allegro-Adagio, “Xishang Jing” (West) employs the brass to conjure a flat landscape where the strings produce variations on the horn melodies. The third movement Adagio-Allegro “Dongshan Jing” (East) inhabits the literary classic for which the concerto is named. The sound of delicate bells predominates while announcing the civilized rhythms of daily life, yet the source of this civilization finds its locus in the ringing of pre-civilized ancient bells which unite heaven and earth. The bass strings of the open piano strummed mightily contribute to these mysterious bells. The fourth movement Adagio-Andante “Nanshan Jing” interweaves woodwinds and strings as they conjure mighty rivers, A mighty 5/8 rhythm conjures cloud tempest with a fleeting streak of Stravinsky-like lightning. This was my favorite movement. The storm fades away with plaintive horns and diminuendo reverberation that invites peaceful meditation. The Allegretto fifth movement “Zhongshan Jing” (The Middle) is a canon that that incorporates a variety of dance rhythms in Bosch-like folk carnival that gradually incorporates all the instruments on stage as they move to resounding shout of unified gladness. Gu Mijia’s guzheng playing was delicate and dramatic. Zhou Long’s orchestration was a marvel.

What Zhou Long has done with this composition remains something parallel to what Aaron Copland achieved in his Third Symphony (1946): a sound palette that celebrates historical national unity (amid special differences). Both employ easily accessible folk-motifs yet engage musically in higher complex aesthetics with rigor, humor, and drama. Copland was attempting to attract a large democratic and intellectual audience through this kind of layering, which is more the normal course in Chinese literature, painting, opera, poetry, and music. Both Zhou Long and Aaron Copland argue for a more democratic music than the general course of Western music, rooted as it is in hereditary aristocracy and the patronage of nobles. This kind of sophisticated layering of artistic levels appears to be the new fusion-frontier that finally replaces the elitist niches of self-righteous Postmodernism. Perhaps this new movement should be called Layered Fusion.

The symphonic oratorio Men of Iron and the Golden Spike celebrates the achievement of the approximately 20,000 Chinese workers who, between 1863 and 1869, helped build America’s transcontinental railroad which connected the United States to the two great oceans. What was more astonishing was hard to say: the magnificent music, the lyrical soloists, the dramatic architecture of the libretto, the vibrant chorus, the performing orchestra. This overwhelming event, a fantastic banquet, offered too much to digest in a single hearing.

Although most Americans posses the vague notion that the spine of this country was built by predominately Chinese (and some Irish) laborers, the details of this dangerous undertaking have long faded from their minds. We live at a time when the globe needs to unite to confront the perils of the future—at a time when China and the United States need to be resident in the halls of ambient friendship and not distant paranoid antagonists. The program booklet for this event is itself an eminent historical document of significant value.

The structure of this oratorio in nine parts alternates between orchestra, soloists, chorus, and narrator. The role of the Narrator by Bass Andrew Munn (marvelous job!) remains akin to the role of the narrator In Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait (1942), yet here Zhou Long had a more difficult task: to project the voices and lives of thousands and not one man. This was where Su Wei’s libretto played a key role. Wang Bing’s ehru was memorable. The varied segments enjoyed adept musical transitions amid tragedy, separation of families, harrowing work, flirting for comic relief, immense cooperative achievement, and the hospitality of lasting friendship. Where was Vice President Mike Pence? This cultural event should have been included in his portfolio.  

International Tenor Chen Dashuai was the lead actor in the spotlight with the confident voice to match it. Soprano Rachel Schultz displayed her lovely sensitive voice with nuance. Baritone Ricky Feng Nan offered flawless support. Mezzo-Soprano Zha Lina sang with passionate aplomb. Soprano Daniella Travaglione, twelve years old, sang with finesse, yet might have had more projection, but that will arrive with age. But above all this magnificence were the arms of Conductor Jindong Cai—he was the man who brought the heavens down to endow the music with such mystic power and elicit from the 124 strong chorus the song of the earth!