West meets East in revelatory blend of new works by Chinese composers

Sat Mar 17, 2012 at 9:40 am

By Wynne Delacoma

Xie Zhiliu painting

Maybe it’s because world music has become so popular, something we encounter everywhere from TV commercials and the Internet to concerts by classical superstars like Yo-Yo Ma and Lang Lang.

That familiarity bred delight Friday night at the Chinese Fine Arts Society’s chamber music concert in the Art Institute’s Fullerton Hall. The concert featured several Chicago Symphony Orchestra members as well as accomplished musicians playing traditional Chinese instruments in six works, four of them world premieres by emerging young composers of Chinese descent.

It was a revelation to hear the seamless interplay of timbres between the Western-style flute and the Chinese dizi, between the violin, viola and cello and the lute-like pipa and the guzheng, a Chinese zither. In 1984, when the society was founded to introduce Chinese culture to a wider audience, concertgoers may have been most struck by the differences between Western and Chinese music. At Friday’s concert, it was the similarities that lingered in the ear.

The society holds a competition for new works every five years, and this year’s winners explored a wide range of moods, from the often anguished loneliness of Daniel Lo’s Sojourner’s Song for pipa, flute, bass, piano and percussion to the expansive, meditative calm of Tonia Ko’s Moon Lullaby for oboe, vibraphone, violin, viola and cello.

The competition winners are high achievers—Lo studies at the University of Hong Kong, and Ko at Indiana University. Hao Liu, whose jagged-edged piece for guzheng, dizi, flute, piano and cello titled Limpid Eyes Image was heard Friday, is a doctoral candidate at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. The fourth winner–Yao Chen, composer of the intensely driven Yearning for guzheng and double bass—has had his music performed by such groups as the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s.

But their new works certainly benefitted from the top orchestral talent who performed the concert, among them CSO members violinists Yuan-Qing Yu and Kozue Funakoshi, cellist Ken Olsen, double bassist Daniel Armstrong, oboist Scott Hostetler and percussionist Cynthia Yeh.

Performers also included percussionist Eric Millstein of the Lyric Opera Orchestra, flutist Eugenia Moliner, pianist Kuang-Hao Huang and three outstanding Chinese-instrument musicians: Yang Wei, pipa; Hong-Da Chin, dizi, and YuQi Deng, guzheng. Emanuele Andrizzi conducted.

The links between the dizi and flute added color to Hao’s already dramatic Limpid Eyes Image. For much of the piece Chin’s dizi was mellow and breathy, a lovely contrast to Moliner’s more focused flute. As they both raced through a high, complex passage, however, their voices merged in a clear, golden timbre.

In Chen Yao’s Yearning, the powerful storms that erupted from Deng’s delicate-looking guzheng more than equaled the expressive depth of Armstrong’s double bass. The metallic flurries of Wei’s pipa in Lo’s Sojourner Song frequently found an echo in the raw-edged growls of Armstrong’s double bass and Huang’s piano.

Works by more established composers, Yi Chen’s Tibetan Tunes and three short piano pieces by Vivian Fung, completed the program.

Posted in Performances

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