St. Donats Arts Centre, Llantwit Major, Wales, May 9, 2012
Vale of Glamorgan Festival of Music
I’ve not learned to drive on the “wrong” side of the road. That meant cadging a lift to Llantwit Major for my first Vale of Glamorgan Festival of Music concert. Thank goodness for Festival staff member Cathy Morris, who did the driving, for the evening was rainy, and Llantwit Major is about an hour’s drive from Cardiff on small and yet smaller roads.
The concert that night, Soloists for Traditional Chinese Instruments, included a pre-concert conversation with Chen. Chen, who lives in Paris, recounted his musical journey from China to France, where he became the last student of Olivier Messiaen. Messiaen’s greatest lessons to Chen were simple ones: Be sincere, and be yourself. He encouraged Chen to “find what’s in your culture and develop that.”
Chen grew up with the sound of his father playing the erhu (two-stringed violin) and decided to incorporate the sounds of traditional Chinese culture into his music. For the concert at St. Donats Arts Centre, Chen stressed that the emphasis was not on his compositions (though his Three Bursts of Laughter was included in the program). “My piece is not important,” he said. “It is the traditional music and other composers you’ll hear.”
Most of all, he wished to introduce us to “amazing Chinese musicians, some number one for their instrument in China.” Chen had chosen the musicians who attended personally. “I am honored,” he said, “for them to come to the Festival.” Chen explained that, today in China, “Western pop culture is pervasive. Because of that, traditional Chinese music is squashed even further.” It was, therefore, all the more important to be able to present “these outstanding young performers, very rare and special.”
Nan Wang (erhu), Jia Li (pipa), Zhongyuan Shang (sanxian), Li He (yangqin), Jing Chang (guzheng), Yunying Chen (di)
The six instrumentalists—all women—took to the stage for the first piece, Shao II, a contemporary composition by Weijie Gao for ancient Chinese instruments and percussion. The piece was a marvel to see as well as hear. The instruments were works of art, both visually and in sound, and redolent with history.
The bold strings rattled like splatters of sudden rain,Jia Li, in her twenties, began playing the pipa when she was six. She played pipa at the premiere of Qigang Chen’s Iris Dévoilée and would play it for us at the Festival’s closing concert. On this evening, her solo piece was Tragedy of the King, a traditional piece arranged by pipa master Dehai Liu. Jia Li’s playing was both balletic and exact. She moved with fluidity and grace, even when the notes she played came fast and fierce. Her concentration was total, and the music she drew from the pipa brought Bai Juyi’s words to life before our ears and eyes.
The fine strings hummed like lovers' whispers.
Chattering and pattering, pattering and chattering,
As pearls, large and small, on a jade plate fall.
One after another, these fine musicians played solos and duets with elegance and towering technique. Yunying Chen, on di (bamboo flute), with Flight of the Chinese Partridge, sent us floating into the landscape of an ancient Chinese scroll. Zhongyuan Shang played Dance Fantasy, by contemporary Chinese composer Xiaoling Xu. Her instrument was the sanxian, a three-stringed fretless lute, its body covered with snakeskin, its sound akin to a banjo. The first half of the concert ended with Jing Chang, on guzheng (Chinese zither), playing her own composition, Shadow of the Sky. Jing Chang has contributed a number of new pieces to the guzheng repertoire, both classical and popular.
A student then came up with “a dragon breathing.” On the heels of hearing the musician’s expert musical response, the students called out one idea after another, clamoring for more. I was sorry not to have been able to witness that.
After the interval, Li He, on yangqin (hammered dulcimer), played contemporary composer Qing Yang’s Seeking. Jing Chang, on guzheng, followed, in a duet with Jia Li on pipa, with an elegant rendition of the traditional Night on the Spring River under the Moonlight. Li He and Nan Wang, on erhu, were next with contemporary composer Tan Dun’s Shuang Que. Shuang Que ranged inventively among the plaintive, percussive, lyrical, and dissonant, closing on a passage I experienced as bluegrass refracted through an Eastern prism. The piece displayed in full what these instruments can do in the right hands, which Li He’s and Nan Wang’s clearly were.
The di opened on a breath, followed by a brief melodic line. By fits and starts, the sanxian, pipa, and guzheng joined in. Short-lived lyrical passages gave way to pointillist and percussive bursts. Toward the end of the piece, the di floated out on a current of gentle song, the guzheng rippling beneath. The pipa and sanxian followed suit, though unable to repress a last burst of laughter before the music faded to a close.
Standing, left to right: Li He, Zhongyuan Shang, Qigang Chen, Yunying Chen, Jia Li
Seated, left to right: Nan Wang, Jing Chang
This is the second in a three-part series. The first part, Crossing a Bridge of Dreams, can be found here. The third part, Worlds Entwined, can be found here.
A Spotify listening list can be found at Ancient Instruments, Timeless Sounds.
Finding samples of music was difficult, particularly of the contemporary compositions. (Spotify appeared to have more to offer than Youtube in this case.) Two of the traditional pieces played in the concert are listed below, along with a composition by Tan Dun:
Flight of the Chinese Partridge
Night on the Spring River under the Moonlight (traditional orchestra version)
Tan Dun's Ghost Opera (excerpt)
And here are two examples of music for traditional instruments that have found their way into new genres:
Jing Chang's the breath
Cold Fairyland jam with pipa, drum, and didjeridu
Credits and Links: A link to the May 9th program can be found here (though there were some changes not indicated in the program). The photograph of the pipa can be found here. The quotation from Pipa Xing can be found here. The quotations from the conversation with Chen are from my notes. Any errors in accuracy of the transcription are wholly mine.