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Susan Chan: At the Frontier of Synthesis

by Kevin T. McEneaney
Mon Sep 30th, 2019

Susan Chan at Bard College

Susan Chan, Professor of Music at Portland State University, is that rare virtuoso pianist: adept in both the piano repertoire of East and West, playing both repertoires with consummate facility, just as she is adeptly bilingual. The past hundred years have seen a remarkable musical interaction between the legendary masterpieces from both corners of the globe. At Bard College this interaction has begun to bloom with the establishment of the US-China Music Institute at Bard College and the annual China Now Music Festival, now in its second year.

On Sunday evening at Lászlo-Bitó Conservatory, Susan Chan performed an eclectic piano recital of noted Chinese composers.  I must confess that I know nothing about Chinese music, yet upon reflection, I realized that that is no bar to enjoying Chinese music—it’s not like having to learn a new language, but merely learning to appreciate new sounds. After all, music is the universal language accessible to anyone anywhere around the globe.

Susan Chan opened with Pianobells by Zhou Long, a 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner for Music. This work began with the strumming of low register piano strings from the opened piano, which conjured the sound of large bells. For a bewildered moment, I thought I was at a John Cage concert. That left me with the excitement of opening up to anything, and anything turned into a mix of Italian church chimes, rushing rivers, Buddhist monastic bells, French impressionist water music, sounds of the mountains, waterfalls cascading, the sounds of the interactions between heaven and earth. And yes, the result was a delightful variety of sounds never heard before—music which is fascinating! Zhou Long often finds initial inspiration from the great wealth of Chinese poetry.

Above all, Chinese music is poetic with synesthetic perceptions. Just as poetry in Chinese is also painting, music is also poetry. Music as poetry or dance remains more accessible than music as mathematical flight. The fondness for attaching mood or plot programs permits wide cross-cultural accessibility. Just as the title of the piece was a compound, compound musical perspectives were invoked, inviting the hearer to follow the threads found most attractive.   

Lamentations of Lady Chiu-Jun by Doming Lam flowed. This offered the program of a journey and I felt I was continually ascending uphill in the piece with the higher register recalling the pipa, a small Chinese flute. The portrait of this lady’s generosity toward the Mongolians entered a realm of tragic irony as the folk tunes evaporated into thin air.

Music for Piano by Chinese Canadian composer Alexina Louie was in four movements: “The Enchanted Bells” depicting the delights of childhood; “Changes” which offered a minimalistic style meditation on the challenges of adult life; “Distant Memories” which offered a meditation on the difficulties encountered during adulthood; “Once Upon a Time” once more returned to meditate on the pleasures of childhood and the past course of life’s river.

Chen Yi’s Northern Scenes was commissioned by Susan Chan in 2013. This poetic and dramatic work conjured panoramic vistas of mountains in northern China. Rooted in nature, this presented an inviting meditation of the grandeur of nature and humankind’s smaller world in comparison. Once again, there were sound combinations I’ve never heard before.

After intermission, Susan Cahn played Tan Dun’s Eight Memories in Watercolor. Tan Dun describes this work as “a diary of longing.” The first movement freighted much mystery and suspense, as if the composer was searching into his past to discover what made him a musician. The second movement sounded like early childhood memoires of hearing festive public music. The third movement with its comic opening and folk tunes sounded like a meditation of the pranks and games of childhood. The fourth movement was deeply personal: reflective, lyrical, poetic. The fifth movement was deeply meditative. The sixth movement sounded like it was a meditation on hard work, perhaps a reflection on higher education. The seventh movement was a celebration of public events, perhaps of his public success. The final eighth movement reflected once more upon childhood and the happy folk tunes of his origin as a musician. For me, this was the climax of the recital. I found this work as poetically absorbing as John Field’s Nocturnes or Frederic Chopin’s improvements on Field. I especially loved the alternating meditation on public and private themes.

Étude No. 2 from Alexander Tcherepnin’s Five Concert Études was next. This Russian-American pianist composer visited China (1934-36) as one of the first pioneers to synthesize Chinese and European music. Employing the pentatonic scale and greatly influence by Debussy (who was influenced by Indonesian music), Tcherepnin dexterously wove a garment of both traditions into an impressionistic tapestry of Chinese folk tunes with European structures, and at one point, even an American jazz riff!

Zhang Zao’s Pi Huang (Peking Opera) delivered a musical mediation on opera from the point of view from childhood. Eclectic and dramatic with sweeping arpeggios, this was a most exuberant and cheerful conclusion.

Susan Chan responded to her enthusiastic audience with an encore, a pianistic tour-de-force which was lively, joyful, delicate with an occasional dissonant edge, floating principally in the higher register with folkloric refrains as in Celtic music.

This was a most unusual concert. East meets West appears to be the new cutting edge in exciting music that moves beyond the usual. Most of the pieces played by Susan Chan are available from her Naxos disc Echoes of China—Contemporary Piano Music. Susan Chan’s playing was fluent, immediate, dexterous, exciting!