How far should a music program go? One might argue that program music began with Greek drama or specific religious festivals. For Western music, it began with short autobiographical pieces by Marin Marais; in symphonic music with Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. As music critic, Jean Jacques Rousseau advocated radical libertarianism as he argued for the abolition of all titles, lest they overly influence the listener. For me, such orthodoxy remains authoritarian, while programming too explicitly in music leads to fundamentalism that may deaden or distract from music.
Under Communism China imitated Russian Social Realism. All music had to have a title and must tell a story, preferably of social harmony with positive political content—otherwise you were a decadent looking for trouble. Guohui Ye’s Drinking Wine by the Stream’s Choice (2012) accompanied by accomplished soprano Manhua Gao tells the story of scholars playing a drinking game by the stream. If the stream chooses your spot, you have a choice. Recite a spontaneously composed poem or drain the goblet (about three cups worth). Music on such a frivolous subject would have landed one in prison a few decades ago. This was a charming opener that gave the best role to flutes: they often held a single note in the same tone. A libretto would have been welcome.
Xiaogang Ye’s Scent of the Green Mango, Op 42 (1998) was more ambitious. For a moment it did put me under a green mango tree in Puerto Rico. While the orchestra offered a kind of sentimental film score, the piano played by Gwhyneth Chen would have none of that sentiment yet aspired to melodramatic flourishes with arpeggio runs and sudden turns. Such a narrative challenge might recall Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto where the piano outshone the orchestra. Here, the piano was much more interesting than the orchestra, yet the orchestra did little to challenge the piano. The nearly fifty strings on stage were virtually irrelevant. I had the impression that taking pleasure in the scent of the mango was a radical self-indulgence meriting social disapproval: the artist selfishly doing his own thing and not being a social insect in the hive—that a dangerous artistic aesthetic was being asserted.
There was a syncretic synesthesia in the music: the piano sounded sometimes like Chopin, sometimes like a Javanese gamelan, sometimes evoking a Thai folk tune. Sounds outside of China were struggling to get in or out. The motif of instruments echoing each other like ripples in a pond offered satire on social and military conformity, which reminded me of Shostakovich’s satiric escapades. The symphony appeared to ask more questions than can be answered. How much of the rest of the world should China absorb or be influenced by? Were some instruments begging to be liberated like the gorgeous concluding oboe solo played by Aleh Renezau?
Aleh is a Canadian of recent Belo-Russian descent. During intermission I asked him what he liked about guest conductor Jindong Cai from Stanford University? Aleh, a charming and enthusiastic man, replied “his clarity and precision.” He said that Jingdon’s interpretation of Rachmaninoff was different, but that this difference in interpreting Romantic compositions among conductors was one of the strong streaks of Romantic music in general, even as late as Rachmaninoff. So Rousseau’s extremism is a virtue of Romantic perception.
Jindong certainly appeared in confident command. Frankly, he was a balletic marvel to watch. His whole body appeared to exude, radiate music. This was especially true of the energetic Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances, Op 45, Rachmaninoff’s last major work, written in Huntington, Long Island, three years before his death from cancer. The Tsarist satiric march section supplied a parallel to The Scent of Green Mango. The haunting waltz recalled the old landed Aristocracy, while the third movement recalls the excitement of musical composition until it is interrupted by the ominous Dies Irae tune and a farewell Alleluia. Yet I’m merely projecting a program on the music. As music, the piece remains electric, allusive, nimble, and enigmatic. The strings were intoxicating, overwhelming in their fluidity, rollicking but tender as well. Aleh’s oboe arrived with golden tone.