East meets West successfully as Fulcrum Point celebrates the Year of the Tiger

Fri Feb 26, 2010 at 1:32 pm

By Bryant Manning

Windpipe Chinese Ensemble

However misused or poorly conceived, multicultural programs are an easy sell in the arena of classical music. Yet it’s difficult to produce concerts that successfully bridge the hemispherical divides by keeping the respective personalities of each tradition intact.

On Thursday night at Northwestern’s Thorne Auditorium, Fulcrum Point New Music Project presented a tastefully crafted program of East meets West where two proud musical traditions comfortably shared the stage—pipas, violins and all. In a program celebrating Hong Kong’s “Year of the Tiger,” the 12-year-old Fulcrum Point hosted the Windpipe Chinese Ensemble for their Stateside debut.  The event was copresented by the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office of New York (HKETO).

From the first work by Yau Hok-chau, In Celebration of Good Times, Western ears might have had to adjust to the harder-edged, less fluid approach to wind and string playing, which often sounded out of tune. But as in Yi Jian-quan’s Birds Returning to the Woods, the music is quickly graspable. In this instance and in many others, the music is often evocative of nature, here with strings impersonating a flock of chirping birds. Clarence Mak’s Koel on Mount Parker reflects on hiking around Hong Kong’s stunning Quarry Bay, and Lam Tin-wai slowly rambled about on her banjo-like instrument, the sanxian.

The world premiere of Ng Cheuk-yin’s Tiger Sketch featured a video of artist Lee Chi-ching painting a gigantic watercolor of tigers, and for better or worse, forced you to look past the unremarkable score that was being played to it. Rhythmic vitality was not in short supply, either. The ensemble had a foot-stomping good time in Chen Ning-chi’s Ritual Gathering, a short celebration of tribal music from the Mountain Aborigines in Taiwan. As in Li Cheong’s Drumming Ridge, there was prominent use of the dizi, a flute with a reedier tone like that of an oboe. Yeung Wai-kit supplied these marvelously echoic sounds that really do transport you out of the chilly Midwest.

The nexus of Chinese and the West was surprisingly effective, which so often feels compromised elsewhere. Fulcrum Point’s artistic director Stephen Burns’ provided his own vividly scored Cat & Rat, which tells the cute tale of how two rodents raced each other for Chinese zodiac immortality. (The rat won). Erhus mimicked soft meows while the pipa’s tremolos called to mind a scurrying rat; even the imperious use of a trombone didn’t feel out of place. With spirited narration by NBC 5’s Nesita Kwan and Ed Young’s adorable illustrations, this was a rare collaborative work that succeeded from all angles.

The one multicultural opus hardest to grasp was Joshua Chan’s awkward Distant Reflection, scored for various Chinese instruments and saxophone and piano. The tuning incompatibility might have had something to do with it, particularly in the wailing erhus, but overall this often sounded like a playpen full of tortured kitties.

Local composer Victoria Bond’s Dancing on Glass featured a traditional Western trio in tiny musical episodes that captured the frequent turns of the Liu Yang River. She accomplished this by scoring in abundance colorful glissandi, percussionist effects and pizzicati.

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