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China Now Music Festival

Music Review
Tue Oct 23rd, 2018

Jindong Cai conducting TON at Carnegie Hall. Photo by Matt Dine.

In geo-political circles it is recognized that China is a rising power.  It is both a measured and aspirational phenomenon that has been encouraged by a government which understands that power can be expressed in a multitude of ways and not just by  a strong military.  Last week, in three separate concerts in three different halls, audiences heard Chinese musical compositions that were made possible by a supportive Chinese government.  I heard but one of those concerts, played by Bard’s The Orchestra Now in Carnegie Hall that premiered six compositions by six composers. All six were commissioned specifically for this concert that was the result of a year-long collaboration between the Bard Conservatory of Music’s US-China Music Institute headed by Jindong Cai and China’s Central Conservatory of Music.

It was an incredibly ambitious program for a young institute as it required The Orchestra Now (TON) to master a dozen pieces of contemporary Chinese compositions 11 of which were premiers. TON is composed of young musicians, most of whom are one or two years out of their music schools. They did a superb job led by Jindong Cai and Chen Lin as conductors.

The Carnegie Hall program on Monday night had been preceded by a totally separate program on Sunday afternoon at Lincoln Center and yet another on Saturday night at the Sosnoff Theater of Fisher Center. 

Of the six compositions I heard, one feature that most stood out was the generous use of drums and of all the tools of percussion and timpani. Each of these pieces employed a team of at least five and sometimes seven on the percussion instruments that ranged from the subtle rumblings to triumphant glory. 

Chen Xinruo, a composer with the Central Conservancy who has scored many films, created music inspired by what he imagined were the sounds made by the instruments of the Tang Dynasty (618-906).  They were varied – a moment that might have been Debussy quickly changed to a panoramic review of sounds both quiet and dramatic and then triumphant with the crashing of the bass drum.  One could imagine a horde of horsemen charging, clashing with an enemy and crushing them underneath all to the deafening sounds of drums.

Ching Ping in his program note mentions “the unknown code of humanity” in the context of the “mutual exclusion of quantum mechanics and general relativity.”  The artist needs to communicate between nature, science and the environment.  Bird song, rumblings, a dawning presence, a big bang and lots of orchestral color show a command of using western instruments to make new and interesting sounds; this piece, and those that followed, could not have been written by a westerner steeped in the classics. 

Jia Guoping’s “The Landscape of the Northern Country” uses as its text the poem “Snow” written by Mao Zedong in 1936 that depicts the magnificent landscape of Shanxi Provence.  “The mountains dance like silver snakes, and the highlands charge like wax-hued elephants.”  Charging elephants make for thunderous drumming.

Tang Jianping’s “Realmorphism, an orchestral study in tone color and dynamics is a tone poem with long chords and rich sounds evoking sighs.  I think I heard a flock of turkeys, a fog horn, effervescent breeze and the jangle of Buddist bells. The notes refer to a walk in the woods, the Jietai Temple and a scented forest, all poetic evocations brought out by the elegant conducting of Chen Lin.

Qin Wenchen’s “The Light of the Deities” takes us to Tibet with this haiku:

Back to our mountains .

The light of the deities on the desolate plateau.

His note says his childhood was spent on the grassland of Inner Mongolia; that he moved by nature, that “the greatest art in in nature.” He did a good job with making art with the sounds of the orchestra, evoking the sounds of wind and arid highlands. This was a well-balanced piece with the drums building in intensity at the end.

The final piece by Guo Wenjing called “Zang” was the most poetic of the six. The notes explain Tibetan references: the dance music of the Lamas (Zang), the sacred bird, a memorial service.  “The piece is a pilgrimage of the composer’s heart.” This piece ended quietly.

The audience was most appreciative of the range and talents showed in these compositions and the talents of the orchestra in performing music that for them was entirely new.  It was new to us, too.  It revealed a pride and a confidence that reflects China as a rising power.  Don’t be surprised if one or more of these pieces turns up in an orchestral program.  The time is ripe.  All these pieces are by talented composers who well understand how to use an orchestra.

Stephen Kaye is a member of the Bard Music Conservatory advisory board.