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Floating on the Silk Road

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Aug 25th, 2018

Conductor Jindong Cai with youth orchestra members

The Bard Youth Chinese Orchestra played its Premiere Performance at Fisher Center’s Sosnoff Theater last night as part of the newly formed US-China Institute under its Director, Professor, and Conductor Jindong Cai, the leading scholar and conductor on the history of Western music in China. His most popular book presents the history of Beethoven’s popularity in China.

Under Jindong Cai’s energetic baton, this youth orchestra, composed of principally high school students from China, performed an Anhui folk song “Fen Yang Flower Drums.” This was modern orchestral adaptation of what was once a drum and cymbal piece. There are 56 major ethnic groups outside of the Han ethnicity in China and the training of current composers is to visit these various ethnic musical modalities and let those melodies influence their compositions. The program at Bard College encourages composers to synthesize traditional Chinese music and instruments with Western approaches and arrive at a new artistic integration. The melodic contour of this piece remains one of the most famous Chinese compositions and its graceful lines are the reason that this enjoyable piece resonates around the globe.

Jindong Cai then introduced the various instruments which Westerners may not be familiar with and had students perform short solos. This helped the audience to hear the individuality of each instrument as it melded into ensemble. The oldest instrument is the pipa, a four-string instrument like a lute, which probably arrived from Persia about 2,500 years ago. The power and trajectory of Chinese music resides in the upper register. The orchestra was supplemented by two cellos and a double bass. I predict that there will be a great need for cello players in China in the near future.

The orchestra then performed “Fantasy on a Western Theme” by Huang Zhenyu and Zhou Wang. This was a concerto for the guzheng, a twenty-three stringed instrument resembling a harpsichord that needs to be plucked, the right side being pentatonic while the varied effects outside of pentatonic may be achieved with the left hand. This was a fusion of Chinese melodies and Western tempos that ran a gamut of moods from melancholy to daydream. Played by Zhou Wang herself, this represented the more introverted and subtle stream of Chinese music that I favor.

“Silk Road” by Jiang Ying might be the most famous contemporary work of Chinese music wherein traditional Chinese instruments are shaped to a variety of Western styles, including Indian and Persian, as it wanders through the memory of the historical Silk Road. Nearly all Chinese music is program music—a story, poem, famous painting, or mood remains associated with the piece. The chameleon-like journey arrives at a thrilling climax where the various motifs unite with explosive agreement. This piece is truly a work of memorable enchantment.

After intermission they re-assembled to play “Ambush from All Sides,” a traditional folksong turned to a symphonic commemoration (arranged by Liu Wenjin and Zhao Yongshan) of a major battle in 202 B.C. This reminded me of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, a celebratory public piece that verges on the bombastic.

“Hundred Birds Worship the Phoenix,” a traditional tune with Zhang Weiwei on suona (a rather tiny horn with valves) was played with masterful aplomb (with much circular breathing) and vibrant humor. This delightful showpiece traversed the spectrum from rugged dissent to defiant ecstasy. The orchestra was cast to play background to the phoenix horn, which appeared to proclaim a paean to individual voice amid the crowd of plucking and clucking birds.

They then played parts two and four of Wang Danhong’s “Ode to the Sun,” which concludes in a glorious, climactic sunset whose colors radiated throughout the hall. This dramatically displayed Western crescendo and rousing climax with a fully unified orchestra thundering to the heavens.

After rapturous applause, three short encores were played: “Lovely Flowers, Perfect Moon” offered optimism and poetry on this clear night with full moon—it appeared to harmonize with the landscape outside the theater and conjure a vision of hopeful progress in the mutual integration of Western and Chinese music and the new “musical language” that will emerge; they then swung into the universally popular George Gershwin tunes of “Summertime” and “I Got Rhythm,” which, with Chinese instruments, offered fresh colors and nuance to a familiar tune, due to the instruments played. The ecstatic audience demanded two long bows.

This same program will be repeated at Harvard College’s Sanders Theatre tomorrow night.