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New Musical Institute at Bard

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Mon Jan 29th, 2018

Conductor Chen Bing

Last Sunday afternoon a musical event of historic proportions was celebrated at Bard’s Sosnoff Theater with the official opening of the US-China Musical Institute, a partnership between Bard College and the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing (established in 1949). This program will have major musical and sociological implications. Over 400 years ago, the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci presented a Ming Dynasty emperor with a Western musical instrument; while not much happened back then, Western classical music has undergone serious development in China over the past fifty years, especially in the past two decades.

One object of this new many-layered program (of mutual seminars, a new degree in the performance of Chinese instruments at Bard, an annual Chinese music Festival at Bard and in New York City, and an annual summer academy at the Bard campus for high school students to study Chinese musical instruments) is an attempt to forge a new musical language: to bring some traditional Chinese musical instruments into the repertoire of Western classical chamber and orchestral music, as well as helping China to more profoundly understand Western classical music and develop advanced Chinese performers, something that has already happened. At the moment China feels that there is a current trade deficit in music that benefits the West which remains ignorant of Chinese music.

Sunday’s afternoon concert featured the Beijing Chamber Orchestra of the Central Conservatory of Music in the first half of the program, an interlude of diplomatic exchanges of doctorates, gifts, and compliments, followed by Bard’s graduate The Orchestra Now playing compositions by Chinese composers.  

Concerto Grosso by Chen Xinruo (b. 1978) led the program. A prolific composer of film scores and the author of a major book on keyboard harmony and improvisation, Chen Xinruo’s concerto began with a folk melody with plucking on steel strings, initiating a conversation with the orchestra, which expanded the folk melody to explore its tangential connections to tango and orchestral embellishment. This was Chinese-rooted music with some Western instruments that reached outward with elegance and sophistication, yet never lost its national flavor. The orchestration, slightly formulaic, was especially adept. The first half of the program was enthusiastically conducted by Chen Bing.

Jin Lin by Tang Jianping (b. 1955), who has composed nine operas, four dance compositions, and six symphonic cantatas, began with subtle mystery and real suspense. I was hooked by the swooping dramatic arc. While I am not partial to great flings of percussion, the diverse percussion in this piece was far more mellow and satisfactory than I imagined possible. Here was a composer that I yearned to hear more of and hope to in the future.

Recitative for Chinese Gongs by Guo Wenjing, who was one of the first Chinese citizens to study classical music after Mao’s Cultural Revolution, offered a blend of Chinese and classical styles. Guo Wenjing performed this piece himself. He appeared to be a superlative gong wizard who traveled through varied historical periods from the present to the past, raising the question was the present any better than the past? There was flute and clarinet antiphony and some other percussion. John Cage must be his sympathetic American ghost.

The TŌN Orchestra performed Dance of the Sleeve Dagger and Warriors by Chen Danbu (b. 1955) with Jindong Cai conducting with vibrant nuance the second half of the program. A mandolin-like instrument began with a vigorous court tune to which the full orchestra responded; here was a vigorous dialogue that exploited the whole orchestra. The stamp of Gustav Mahler’s influence was dominant, especially in the use of brass and eight basses. A Chinese pipa (like a piccolo) presented a plaintive folk motif, yet it was the court stringed instrument that offered drama and suspense. There was a delicious crescendo and delightful finale. Of all the works played that afternoon this was my favorite; it appeared to be a thorough synthesis of the best threads and impulses of Chinese and classical music.  

Forlorness by Zhou Yanjia (b. 1934) featured Zhou Wang on guzheng, a rather large flat harp played with impressive plucking. This instrument was dominant in China over 2,000 years ago and the melody of this composition was itself over two millennia old. There was drama in the instrument during this concerto-like piece which was powerful in invoking mood, yet I thought the role of the orchestra was under-developed in order to display the varied nuances of this old instrument.

Two excerpts from Liu Wenjin’s (1937-2013) The Great Wall Capriccio concluded the concert. The third and fourth of its five movements were played. This work was inspired by a huge painting of the Great Wall that hangs in the United Nations. With concerto-like give-and-take with the orchestra, Yu Hongmei performed on the erhu, a single-stringed instrument from which she conured such arresting sounds that I was transfixed by her performance; she is obviously a world-master on this instrument. The third movement of the work evoked great pathos, while the fourth movement rose to great optimism with a resounding Beethoven-like finale that was earthshaking and majestic.

This new cultural exchange project between Annandale and Beijing should be tremendously fruitful. There are so many musical avenues that may open from it that it may sound dizzying. Sosnoff Theater was filled to capacity. Present were ambassadors, diplomatic staff, the composers themselves, and the growing audience impatient for, and anticipating,  this new musical language to develop further.