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Pacific Symphony shows off Chinese composers

March 12, 2004|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Having duly acknowledged Tan Dun and Bright Sheng last week at the first concert of its American Composers Festival, this year called "Tradewinds From China," the Pacific Symphony turned to Chen Yi and her husband, Zhou Long, on Wednesday night at the Orange County Performing Arts Center for the festival's major concert.

It had been the orchestra's intention all along to center the festival on the irrepressibly energetic Chen. She got the major commission. And never one to shy away from the limelight, she decided to write a cello concerto for Yo-Yo Ma, which was given its premiere at the close of a program that also featured a new version of Zhou's lustrous "Two Poems From T'ang" as well as Sheng's brilliant "China Dreams."

Chen's "Ballad, Dance and Fantasy" for cello and orchestra journeys along the Silk Road, progressing not only from China to the West but also from past to present. In the ballad, the solo cello is fixated on folk music fragments from Shaanxi province, the Silk Road's source. The whirling dance movement is Turkish. The fantasy, full of sliding tones and modern rhythmic grooves, slips into what Chen -- beaming to the audience in a talk with conductor Carl St.Clair -- called the global village.

As soloist, Ma proved his usual versatile and charismatic self -- and ready to return Chen's smiles beam for beam. But in her eagerness to let Ma be Ma, Chen wrote him little that was distinctive beyond all-purpose virtuosity. Rather, it was the orchestra that gave her concerto its character. In the ballad, a softly twittering, sometimes whispering background brought underlying enchantment to Ma's rhapsodic melodies, with dark, low winds deepening the solo cello's resonance. In the dance, conga and bongos buoyed the happy spirit. Even when Ma took off in the global fantasy, the slipping and sliding violins seemed to lubricate his fingers.

Each composer from China who has enlivened the American music scene shows us a different vision of the Chinese experience. Zhou's and Sheng's inspirations and expatriate musings, for instance, have little in common with Chen's.

Zhou, while on a fellowship in Italy's Lake Como region, found that village church bells and his host foundation's ready booze reminded him of 8th century poems by Li Bai. Sheng wrote "China Dreams" after having been away from China for more than a decade and was simply homesick.

Zhou's "Two Poems" is a rearrangement of two of four movements he wrote originally for the Kronos Quartet and orchestra. This time, he used erhu (a two-string fiddle) and pipa (a lute) along with violin and cello as the solo instruments. The first poem is a study in ephemeral resonance, the second in ephemeral drunken poetry. Zhou's music is stunning in its color and imagery, and the soloists -- Karen Han (erhu), Min Xiao-Fen (pipa), Raymond Kobler (violin) and Timothy Landauer (cello) -- were vivid presences.

"China Dreams," completed in 1995, is Sheng at this most orchestrally lavish. Unlike his more recent Bartokian use of Chinese folk music, this is not a gracious meeting of East and West. It is instead the raw emotion of a composer remembering a culture no longer his but impossible to escape. When folk tunes appear, they feel almost surreal surging through the sonorous environment. Indeed, the power of "China Dreams" is Sheng's mastery of the Western orchestra. He may be homesick, but not so much that he isn't a happy beneficiary of the orchestra's power.

St.Clair conducted all these works, along with a short movement from Chen's Chinese Folk Dance Suite, tautly. His evident aim was to channel the vibrant energy and new sounds in this music, and he succeeded.

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