Civitas Ensemble serves up new music of Chinese-American composers

Mon Mar 16, 2015 at 1:43 pm

By Tim Sawyier

The Civitas Ensemble performed music of Chinese-American composers Sunday in Evanston.
The Civitas Ensemble performed music of Chinese-American composers Sunday in Evanston.

The Civitas Ensemble presented a program of works by living Chinese-American composers at the Music Institute of Chicago’s Nichols Hall Sunday afternoon in Evanston. Co-presented by the Chinese Fine Arts Society, the concert provided a clinic in contemporary chamber music performance, which made for an engrossing afternoon even with its stark paucity of consonant intervals.

Opening the program was the first scene of Huang Ro’s (b. 1976) To the Four Corners, a 2005 trio for clarinet, viola, and percussion performed by Civitas member J. Lawrie Bloom with guest artists (and fellow CSO musicians) violist Weijing Wang and percussionist Vadim Karpinos. Inspired by the ancient Chinese folk drama of Nuo—performances of which feature fierce masks, unusual costumes, arcane language, and occasionally sacrificial elements, all meant to ward off disease and evil spirits—the work was cryptically esoteric.

It began with Wang and Bloom seated with their backs to the audience, and Karpinos playing a driving percussion solo on flat-lying cymbals and gongs, which rose to a clangorous climax. An improvisatory-sounding clarinet solo ensued from Bloom—now facing the audience—that featured expertly executed extended techniques (vibrato, pitch bending, and especially flutter tonguing) before entering into a dialogue with Karpinos on woodblocks. Finally, Wang stood to offer a brief viola solo of lurching double-stopped slides and trills, the open intervals of which created an ancient aura appropriate to the work’s inspiration.

Next was the world premiere of The Five Elements by Zhou Long (b. 1953), commissioned by the Chinese Fine Arts Society and dedicated to the memory of its founder Barbara Tao. Each of the five movements of the sextet for flute/piccolo, clarinet, percussion, pipa, violin, and cello is meant to represent one of the five ancient Chinese elements—metal, wood, water, fire, and earth.

The opening “Metal” had a chaotic, ever-changing texture with long lines shared and passed between the five standard orchestral instruments, with color commentary from the pipa and percussion. “Wood” offers rhythmic vitality and featured emphatic virtuoso pipa turns from guest artist Yang Wei. “Water” had creative doubling of melodic lines adorned with shimmering effects from violinist Yuan-Qing Yu.

“Fire” featured furious pipa and string playing surrounded by swirling wind lines with Karpinos playing woodblocks with his fingers to produce a crackling effect. The short finale, “Earth” was ethereal yet grounded, offering resolution after the crunching dissonance of the work’s previous twenty-five minutes.

The afternoon’s highlight was Winston Choi’s performance of Anthony Cheung’s (b. 1982) 2010 solo piano work Roundabouts. The five-movement piece began with a four-note descending motive that served as an organizing trope, reminiscent of the opening of Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole. Choi’s sure hands and profound musical sensitivity brought out the shape, structure, and understated grammar of Cheung’s dense musical language.

The afternoon closed with the other world premiere, Emanations of Tara by Yao Chen (b. 1979), commissioned by the Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard and dedicated to Civitas and guest pipa master Yang Wei.

Tara is the female Bodhisattva of compassion and virtue in Tibetan Buddhism, a guide to spiritual enlightenment for her followers. She exists in many colors—green, gold, blue, red, and white—which provided inspiration for the movements of Chen’s work.

The piece calls for the same instrumentation as Messian’s Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps with pipa and bass clarinet added. The music was accompanied by an experimental film directed by Fen Lin that was meant to enhance Chen’s musical portrayals. A brief introduction of sliding strings and rhapsodic pipa playing created a spiritual, otherworldly atmosphere, held together by some discreet conducting from the piano by Choi.

The gold Tara was introduced by a strike from a Chinese bowl gong (on which Choi was doubling) and featured violin harmonics that channeled an erhu; the warm-sounding blue Tara was adorned with sea-animal sounds that emanated from Cheng-Hou Lee’s cello; and red Tara was played with frenetic rising figures that scintillated like flames.

The white Tara had shimmering ensemble textures and built to an almost deafening climax in the bass of the piano before transcendentally evaporating in the highest registers of the violin and pipa, with shimmering chimes from Choi and Bloom on bowl gongs. The accompanying film, besides providing a roadmap with images of the various chromatic iterations of Tara, added little to the music and, more than anything, distracted from the performers’ consummately dedicated playing.

The Civitas Ensemble performs music of Rabl, Berg, and Schubert 3 p.m. May 31 at the Merit School of Music.

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