China meets New Zealand in music – the NZ Trio

The Confucius Institute at Victoria University of Wellington presents:
JOURNEY TO THE EAST – Concert One: Between Strings

NZ Trio (Justine Cormack, violin / Ashley Brown, ‘cello / Sarah Watkins, piano)
Chen Xi-Yao (guzheng)

BRIGHT SHENG – Four Movements for Piano Trio
CHEN YI – Tibetan Tunes
CAO DONGFU – Celebrating the Lantern Festival
FAN SHANG’E – Spring Morning in the Snow Mountain
DYLAN LARDELLI – Between Strings (NZ Trio commission)
GAO PING – Su Xie Si Ti (NZ Trio commission)

Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University

Saturday, 21st September, 2013

Some years ago there appeared a famous LP recording entitled “West meets East”, featuring violinist Yehudi Menuhin and the famous sitar-player Pandit Ravi Shankar, which was a kind of “ear-opener” for people who hadn’t been exposed to any kind of eastern “classical” music. A quick search through the chaos of my collection failed to locate the actual album, but I do remember the presentation being a mixture of “genuine” Indian music with improvisaions featuring the violin/sitar/tabla combination, coupled with a performance by Menuhin and his pianist sister Hepzibah of a violin sonata by Enescu.

This recording, and the interest it generated in Eastern music throughout the West (at roughly the same time that the Beatles were writing for and using a sitar in some of their songs) came to my mind at various moments throughout this “Journey to the East” concert featuring the NZ Trio and the Chinese guzheng player Chen Xi-Yao. Of course such collaborations between diverse musical traditions are far more common now than they were in the 1960s, and here in Aotearoa we are occasionally enthralled by the sounds of Richard Nunns’ presentations of taonga puoro, often in tandem with groups like the New Zealand String Quartet.

I found it an enthralling listening experience, and one not without its challenges – though, ironically, it was the work of New Zealand composer Dylan Lardelli which most markedly bent my listening sensibilities in divergent directions. Without being steeped in the actual sounds of traditional Chinese instruments and their unique expressive modes I found myself adopting the attitude of an explorer coming across a wondrous new country, enjoying things for their novelty and exotic manner. So, even when instruments familiar to my experience were being used, such as in Bright Sheng’s Four Movements for Piano Trio,  I encountered many sounds whose motivation and effect I could only guess at, while enjoying the composer’s acute ear for a range of sonorities.

Bright Sheng drew the material for this work from a solo piano piece My Song written in 1988, the music stimulated by the composer’s interest in evolving a “tonality” relating to his experiences with both Oriental and Western music. On a superficial level the sounds resembled a catalogue of “effects” which the players realised on their instruments with great aplomb, Chinese folk-fiddle-like melodic progressions and glissandi from both violin and ‘cello, and resonant and evocative activations of the piano strings from “within” by the pianist. The preludial, folkish first movement was followed by two more vigorous movements, firstly a bright and vigorous treatment of an actual folk-song, involving some extremities of instrumental timbres, and then a more primitive sound-world of crunching, Bartok-like piano notes, driving, gutteral strings, and savage punctuations of the textures from all sides, pushing the expressions of energy to the point of exhaustion. The composer called the final movement an evocation of “a lonely nostalgia”, one whose beauty and quiet manner cast a spell over we listeners, and obviously activated a kind of impulse to communicate with us from elsewhere, as the piece’s concluding silences were broken by the anxious tones of a cell-phone!

We then heard music by Chinese-born American-based Chen Yi, whose work for piano trio Tibetan Tunes similarly fuses Eastern and Western modes. Her writing seemed to me to almost ‘take over” the timbral characteristics one normally associates with a piano trio, readily evoking something outside the Western ethos. The first of two tunes was called Du Mu which is the name of a god in Tibetan Buddhism, and which the composer wished to depict “in a serene mood”. She did this by writing in a very open, evocative way at the piece’s outset, contrasting held notes and gentle rhapsodisings from the strings with the piano commenting at the phrase-ends – and from this she led the instruments into a kind of simpatico canon (one whose widely-spaced textures allowed  the northerly wind which was gusting outside to add a kind of rushing, evocative counterpoint!). Again the solo instruments reflected individually upon the god’s all-encompassing serenity, with the piano having the last brief word – beautiful, sensitive playing from the Trio.

The second piece, Dui Xie, was inspired by Tibetan folk-ensemble music featuring bowed and plucked strings with bamboo flutes. Some lively, cheeky and angular piano sounds underlined the singing, duetting strings, before a more motoric section brought forth driving piano figurations and slashing string pizzicati – some arresting string harmonics called a halt to such brash displays of energy, before returning to the opening, the piece all the while presenting us with a sound-world of focused delicacy, suggesting a kind of informed beauty in the mind of its composer.

Thc concert’s guest artist was Chen Xi-Yao, one of the world’s foremost performers on the guzheng, a Chinese stringed instrument resembling a zither. Chinese-born, he’s currently resident in New Zealand, and is based in Hamilton, working as a teacher and performer. He performed two solo pieces for guzheng, one of which, Celebrating the Lantern Festival, was written by (and dedicated to) his grandfather, Cao Dongfu. The work began like a folk-song fantasia, then spectacularly erupted with great flourishes and strummings and quickening bass-note rhythms, generating great physical excitement. The second work, Spring Morning in the Snow Mountain, was a nature-piece, written by another Chinese guzheng master, Fan Shang’e, the sounds inspired by her memory of a Tibetan spring morning. A long-time resident of China, she now lives in Canada.

Both of these solo pieces were, not unexpectedly, given masterly performances by Chen Xi-Yao, who then turned his attention (in tandem with the NZ Trio musicians) towards a piece by New Zealand composer Dylan Lardelli, Between Strings, a work commissioned by the NZ Trio. The title gently suggests that music is as much about the spaces in between as the notes themselves, and the kinds of gestures and sonorities resulting from this idea encouraged me to imagine a possible set of voicings suggesting these spacings while the  work was played.

What resulted was mind-enlarging stuff, the sonorities right from the outset having both angular and disparate characters – a bowing ‘cello set against “plucked” textures from the other instruments, for example – these kind of contrasting wrap-around sounds explored the ambient spaces, with sustained notes leading the more abstracted staccato figurations onwards. The violin mused with harmonics as the ‘cello emitted windmill-like sighs of generated impulse, around which the piano resonated with single notes sounding over vast spaces. Chen Xi-Yao’s guzheng maintained its zither-like character, but occasionally the player opened up its timbres with great flourishes – an invitation for the piano to explore its extremes and invite our sensibilities into the spaces between. There is, of
course, such an inherent stillness about music in general, which we as listeners don’t often acknowledge, and which this work encouraged us to explore without flinching, a “sounds in the air” outlook whose outwardly spontaneous ambient adventurings made my natural instincts work overtime to help try and accept as such.

All of which I found hard, if rewarding, work – and so it was with some relief that I turned to the programme’s final item, another NZ Trio commission, this time from Gao Ping, currently  the Visiting Lecturer in Composition at the New Zealand School of Music in Wellington. The work was called Su Xie Si Ti, or “Four Sketches”, which the composer described as “short and concise”, and each possessing “one single mood” – he also likened the pieces to “snapshots of moments in memory”. To me this seemed almost Mahlerian in spirit, with one of the scenes in particular an almost visceral evocation of a Chinese folk-funeral, complete with an off-stage violin for antiphonal effect, playing “happy music” in tandem with the lamenting ‘cello, who remained on-stage – the composer’s title for this piece, Dui Wei, or “Counterpoint”, set both moods in play together. Justin Cormack and Ashley Brown seemed to relish the theatricality of it all.

Another of the pieces called whimsically Cuo Diao (“Split Melody”) sounded like a couple of Aeolian-like harps attempting to coalesce their sounds, a combination which resulted in some gorgeous sonorities, and occasionally strange “alien” notes, with some wonderful, short-lived diversions from the home key of the piece. The work had begun with a piece called Xiao, or “Boisterous”, music which lived up to its name, a muscular, closely-worked, rather Janacek-like piece, spare and energetic.

The afternoon’s final piece was called Shuo, or “Shining”, a musical evocation of sparkling light, with gamelan-like piano patternings and pizzicati underpinings from the strings – a lovely long-breathed melody brings a contrasting mood and texture, though the rhythmic drive of the piece never goes away, the excitement in places augmented by instruments’ individual “accelerandi”. As the piano continues the forward drive, the strings sing a kind of threnody, a passionalte utterance which abruptly stops at its peak – as we in the
audience were left tingling by these momentums, we gladly continued the tumult of sound with noises of great appreciation – very great honour to the NZ Trio (and to Guzheng player, Chen Xi-Yao) for enabling us to experience such a richly-conceived journey.