Wales Millenium Centre, Cardiff Bay, May 11, 2012
We are all familiar with the Classical tradition in which carved inscriptions are placed above the entrances to important civic buildings. It seemed to me that it would be interesting to revive that idea, but in a contemporary manner, making each of the letters of the inscription into a window, opening the theatre foyers to views outward and inward.The concert in Hoddinott Hall featured two orchestral works by Chinese composer Qigang Chen. In the second piece, Jia Li, Nan Wang, and Jing Chang, whom I’d heard at the concert in Llantwit Major two nights before, would perform. I knew Chen’s two works from a recording, and they were my raison d'être for choosing the portion of the Festival I flew across the Atlantic to attend.
At the pre-concert conversation in Llantwit Major, Qigang Chen, responding to a question about emotion in music, said, “I wrote a piece that I thought full of emotions, then later thought it was superficial.” In contrast, he found that, when “I focus on a particular sound quality and go deep into it, somehow it happens, it goes deep into my personality.” I had reason to think of his words often during the Festival’s closing concert.
As a result of the Cultural Revolution, Chen wasn’t able to go to university until he was twenty-six, when he won a coveted place at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. Five years later, he won the national composition prize and permission to study abroad, in France.
With the encouragement of friends, he wrote to Olivier Messiaen to ask if he would take Chen on as a student. “You’re in France,” Chen recounted his friends saying. “You can dream, do whatever you’d like.” Chen received Messiaen’s response during the summer holiday, proposing a preliminary meeting for October. Chen had studied French for several months before leaving China, but now his challenge was even greater, for he knew that, “for me to become Messiaen’s student was up to me.” He had to prepare to be able to speak in French about contemporary music, and, more than that, to compose contemporary music to present Messiaen.
The final concert opened with Olympiad, a brief fanfare by Philip Glass, followed by Per Nørgård’s eerie, dreamlike Iris. (Each composer had been featured in earlier concerts in celebration of their milestone birthdays.) The concert was then given over to the music of Qigang Chen.
Reflet d’un temps disparu (Reflection of a vanished time, for cello and orchestra)
The melody floats down a river on a rough-hewn raft. Fluttering woodwinds and a brief reprise of melody give way to sounds from a lost and hidden world, immersing us in a deep reverie of remembrance. The music shifts from dark to shimmering. The cello glides and skitters. Curling reeds of memory surface and submerge.
An ancient image appears in a curve of current, whether a face or a voice cannot be known. The orchestra’s journey swirls with color, buoying the cello’s melody along its way. The pulse of the music quickens, and a buried recollection reveals itself on a swell of sound. The lone cello resumes its melody on eddies of gentle music. The raft is put ashore, and step by quiet step, the music dies away.
I’m not one to stand up for just anything, but, in this case, I was on my feet—not least to give honor to the performance from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. The orchestra got inside this music deeply and earned our fulsome praise. Cellist Li-Wei Qin, Parisian conductor Pascal Rophé, and the orchestra’s musicians of whatever nationalities, but surely a hearty number of whom were Welsh, gave us, in both pieces, every nuance of Chen’s music, communicating in full the cross-currents between east and west.
Iris Dévoilée (Iris Unveiled, for 3 sopranos, one in the style of Beijing Opera, and pipa, erhu, guzheng, and orchestra)
After the interval, there was one more piece to come, Qigang Chen’s Iris Dévoilée. With disarming humor, he introduced the piece, in which he set out to limn in music a woman’s emotional states. He told us the piece was written when he was fifty. At the time, he thought he knew “everything about a woman’s world.” Now, “I am sixty,” he said, “and I realize I know next to nothing.”
East and west, in delicate braids of sound, begin to speak in one another’s tongues. In Voluptuous, the Chinese soprano beckons us to pleasure. The western soprano sings caresses as the music drifts and dreams. The violins take on the language of the erhu. The Chinese soprano’s gentle wavering slips alongside the western soprano, a cat arching its back against a leg. The erhu speaks in the language of violins, coaxing the pipa to join in. The Chinese soprano coos the music to its close on glints of sound.
I thought again of Chen’s words, how he would “focus on a particular sound quality and go deep into it,” how, “somehow it happens, it goes deep into my personality.” In Reflet d’un temps disparu and Iris Dévoilée, Chen, from a vast palette of eastern and western sounds, summoned up, in all their gorgeous complexity, two worlds entwined.
With grateful thanks to John Metcalf, who opened the door to this music and made time for musical conversation while I was in Wales; to Dolly Metcalf, Susie, and so many others who welcomed this stranger into their midst; and to Jennifer, Cathy, and Tony, who, with unfailing grace, saw to it that I got to the concerts and helped me find a place to stay, despite all else they had to do.
The recording of Qigang Chen’s Reflet d’un temps disparu and Iris Dévoilée, along with his Wu Xing (The Five Elements), can be found here (and on eMusic, Amazon, and likely iTunes, as well). The cellist on Reflet is Yo-Yo Ma. What I didn’t realize until later was that the musicians on the recording of Iris Dévoilée include Jia Li, Nan Wang, and Jing Chang, who performed on this piece live in Wales.
For a Spotify Listening List, click on Worlds Entwined. (While I can’t be certain of this, I have included what I believe may be the Huan Yi song that inspired Chen’s Reflet.)
Three Variations of Plum Blossoms (As noted for the Spotify Listening List, as best I can trace it, this appears to be the piece that inspired Reflet.)
Reflet d’un temps disparu 1/3; 2/3; 3/3
Credits: Click on the descriptor for the source of these photographs: Southerndown Cliffs, young and older Qigang Chen, Li-Wei Qin, Jing Chang, Jia Li, and Nan Wang. (The photographs of the Millenium Centre are mine.) The quotations on the Centre's architecture can be found here. The information about Chen's background is from my notes from the Llantwit Major conversation and Chen's website, which can be found here. The quotations from the Llantwit Major conversation with Chen are also from my notes. Any errors in accuracy of the transcription are wholly mine.