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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Minds ask, music replies

A visit to Kennedy Center's Festival of China poses questions on cultural aesthetics. Then enjoyment makes them seem less pressing.

October 12, 2005|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — America's obsession with China and what its economic development means for the West may have fallen off the front page lately -- there has been too much else to worry about -- but that doesn't mean China isn't on Washington's radar. And just to make sure, the Kennedy Center is engaged in an extensive Festival of China.

It's a monthlong extravaganza of dance, opera, music, acrobatics, films, exhibitions and the occasional talk. With nearly 900 performers, most from China, the idea seems to be to balance the traditional (which in China means 5,000 years of tradition) with the contemporary. On the terrace level of the center's sprawling complex, for instance, two of the famous terra cotta warriors and a horse found in Emperor Qin's 2,200-year-old tomb stand guard to a display of chic gowns by hot new Chinese designers.

Perplexing cultural questions loom over the dozens of offerings. To what extent is China a society built upon its past and to what extent is modern China patterned on the West? How do we as cultures (and hence as peoples) communicate?

These are crucial issues for our times, and they kept running through my mind Sunday night during the performance of the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra in the Kennedy Center's concert hall. Founded in 1977, the ensemble consists of 88 musicians playing traditional Chinese instruments. But since it is patterned after a Western orchestra, centuries-long tradition requires refashioning.

The convention of Chinese music is the poetic expression of individual or small groups of players with instruments that, like the musical sounds of the language, are high-pitched. To make an orchestra, bass versions of traditional instruments had to be invented. They sound convincing but they look, somehow, wrong.

Still, the notion of mass instruments or mass anything hardly seems alien to a country with a population of 1.3 billion. Indeed, those two terra cotta warriors in the Kennedy Center look awfully lonely without their 8,000 brothers. And the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra certainly has a fondness for numbers. On Saturday night it presented a free concert with 250 drums.

The players wore black robes but otherwise looked like a formally arrayed Western orchestra with sections of strings, winds, brass and percussion in roughly the same layout as any Euro-centric philharmonic. Yan Huichang, the artistic director and principal conductor, uses a baton. His technique is Western and strong. Zubin Mehta appears to be a model. Even so, this is a hybrid orchestra that is true to no culture that existed before it.

Most of the music on the program was symphonic in scope but folk-like in inspiration. Zhao Jiping's "Silk Road Fantasia" Suite, which featured Guo Yazhi as soloist on the guanzi -- sometimes called the "sad oboe" -- sounded as though Rachmaninoff might have been an inspiration for orchestrating, harmonizing and generally romanticizing entrancing folk melodies. In Peng Xiuwen's "The Terra Cotta Warriors Fantasia," a tone poem about the suffering of Qin's troops under a cruel emperor, I heard the flashy side of Shostakovich. A couple of scores from Western movies also flashed by.

Of course, I bring my Western orientation, an ear trained to hear this as kitsch. And my first reaction to an ensemble as dazzlingly well-drilled as this virtuoso band is to note a lack of spontaneity. The orchestra clearly doesn't have a large repertory, and it sounds as though it knows these pieces by heart.

But my prejudices are suspect. Self-expression and individuality mean different things for different cultures. It is entirely possible that this orchestra is exactly what it should be for its audience. We in the West lust after ego-gratification in our art, but that isn't always what is best for society.

Then there was Tan Dun's "Fire Ritual," which was written for this orchestra in 1996. It is a wonderful piece that plays against Chinese traditional music and the Western avant-garde in strikingly dramatic fashion.

A group of players stood in aisles of the auditorium, involving us in their individuality, just as court musicians must have done in ancient China. Wong On-Yuen, the concertmaster, was a soloist on stage; at one point, he played a beautiful solo cadenza on a Chinese violin.

This was a drama between the one and the many, the small and the large, the old and the new, East and West. Tan's way is to enchant more than challenge. The opposing worlds did not compete or conflict. Instead, a composer who grew up in China but made an important international career in America seemed to suggest that we can have it all. His ear is attuned to both cultures, and he selects what he likes.

I was drawn to this concert because of Tan, and the curious thing for me was that hearing "Fire Ritual" made me more open to the other pieces. Most in the audience presumably came for the more popular-styled works, yet they responded with delighted enthusiasm over his inventions.

If the Festival of China can do more of such snapping us out of cultural stereotyping, it will be worthwhile. This is a remarkably ambitious and expensive undertaking, an example of how the Kennedy Center likes to think big in ways that other American performing arts centers don't seem able to emulate. But you can never have too much context, and I would have liked more. Where is John Adam's "Nixon in China" when we need it?

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