East meets West in bracing style at Chinese Fine Arts Society concert

Mon Aug 01, 2011 at 1:19 am

By Michael Cameron

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Zhou Long’s “Taigu Rhyme III” received its world premiere Sunday night in a concert presented by the Chinese Fine Arts Society at the Pritzker Pavilion.

The East-West nexus is one of the most heavily explored themes in new music concerts, so much so that one might expect the topic to be nearly exhausted. The Chinese Fine Arts Society program, “Rhythms of China,”presented Sunday at the Pritzker Pavilion proved that assumption to be premature, thanks to a fine concert featuring a premiere by the latest Pulitzer Prize winner.

The Pulitzers for music don’t draw nearly the attention as those for journalism, fiction, or drama, and the track record of past winners has been decidedly mixed. This year’s winner Zhou Long isn’t a well-known commodity among classical concert-goers, but both he and wife Chen Yi are highly esteemed in new music circles.

Taigu Rhyme III is inspired by ancient Chinese court ceremonies and Buddhist rituals. The details of this art form are mostly lost to history and therefore left to the composer to reconstruct as his imagination leads him. The piece derives much of its considerable appeal from the repetition of various rhythmic and melodic cells within shifting meters. Zhou’s notes describe the kinship of the sax with the guanzi, a double reed instrument employed in temple ensembles. Alto saxophonist Masahito Sugihara’s sturdy and stylish performance also suggested links with American pop and jazz, while cellist Sophie Weber and percussionists Rob Dillon and Clay Condon completed the quartet with colorful and neatly synchronized readings.

Zhou Long may be the first Chinese-American composer honored with a Pulitzer, but predecessors of his heritage have achieved great prominence on the concert stage. One of the most acclaimed is Tan Dun, the only composer represented who has flirted with the Western avant-garde. His Elegy: Snow in June is a haunting work for solo cello and percussion quartet that, like most of the others, finds inspiration in ancient legends. This set of free variations begins and ends with clear Chinese melodic influences, while the remainder explores a dizzying array of colors that includes loud percussive snaps and barely audible tearing of paper strips. Cellist Chris Wild and Third Coast Percussion gave the piece a dramatic and expressively nuanced performance.

Gu Ren Guan’s Lady Mua Mulan was the weakest of the four works, but was also the occasion for the most remarkable virtuoso fireworks. Pipa player Yang Wei is one of the area’s most accomplished musicians in any genre, and pianist Katherine Jui Chang was an equally commanding duo partner. While the source material was promising, the piece seemed crafted chiefly as a vehicle for raw chops.

The title of Neil Rolnick’s The Economic Engine refers both to the propulsive rhythmic thrust of the work as well as the commercial juggernaut that is today’s modern China. The composer proved adept at combining traditional Chinese instruments with their Western counterparts, and grafting Eastern melodic elements with the Copland/Adams school of American music. Michael Lewanski led a terrific performance by eight instrumentalists, with the composer contributing live electronics.

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