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MUSIC AND DANCE REVIEWS

New Sounds From Chinese Orchestra

March 17, 1997|JOHN HENKEN

The West Coast debut of the National Traditional Orchestra of China, Saturday evening at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beach, provided dizzying opportunity to observe cross-cultural influences at work. And bringing it all together was a substantial new cello concerto by Chinese American composer Bright Sheng.

Always a sensualist when it comes to instrumental color, Sheng seems to have found much inspiration in the National Traditional Orchestra. "Spring Dreams" is a stunningly realized concept, cast in two formally rounded movements: "Midnight Bells" plays with texture and mood and predominantly string sounds in the orchestra, while "Spring Opera" revels in rhythm with percussion and winds to the fore.

Created specifically for this tour, "Spring Dreams" had its premiere performances last month with Yo-Yo Ma the soloist. For this performance the soloist was Hai-Ye Ni, who may not command quite the same breadth of sound as does Ma but nonetheless dealt expressively with Sheng's protean challenges. She proved even more impressive in the complementary encore that Sheng wrote for Ma, a bravura folk song-based duet with the orchestra's principal pipa player, Wu Yuxia.

Wu Yuxia and her pipa, a Chinese lute, were also featured in another sophisticated folk song setting, "Spring on a Moonlit River." More straightforward--big tune, lush orchestra--was "Reflections of the Moon" for erhu, a Chinese fiddle, delivered with fluid yearning by orchestra member Song Fei.

Conductor Hu Bingxu produced shapely accompaniments from his obviously well-drilled orchestra. He closed each half of the program with extravagantly scored ensemble display pieces: "Ga Da Mei Lin" by Xin Hu Guang, a tone poem sounding something like Antonin Dvorak meeting Ennio Morricone, and the very descriptive "Battle at the Golden Beach" of Jin Jian Shu, rich in Kodoesque percussion work.

Bingxu and the orchestra offered three encores, beginning with a sweetly throbbing arrangement of "America, the Beautiful."

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