Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Worlds Entwined

Wales Millenium Centre, Cardiff Bay, May 11, 2012

The closing concert of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival of Music was held in Cardiff Bay, at the Wales Millenium Centre’s BBC Hoddinott Hall, home to the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.  This time, as I was staying in Cardiff Bay, my own two feet were my transportation.  The day was fine, and the early evening light set the Centre’s bronzed edifice aglow.

Architect Jonathan Adams’ original ideas for the design of the Centre, which opened in 2004, began with “photographs of coastal cliffs, in particular the cliffs at Southerndown.”

The Centre is built entirely from Welsh materials, including strata of slate in varied hues.  Its crowning feature is its bronzed dome, of which Adams wrote:
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.

Qigang Chen, who now lives in Paris, was born in Shanghai, China, in 1951.  His father, a famous calligrapher and artist, was interred in a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution. While still a boy, Chen’s musical studies were interrupted when he was confined for three years to undergo “ideological re-education.”

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 first meeting with Messiaen lasted four hours, and Chen succeeded in becoming Messiaen’s student, his last.  “I knew from that moment on,” said Chen, “everything had changed.”  The experience of working with Messiaen, Chen said, had an “everlasting effect.”  “If you dare to dream,” Chen concluded, “you may be able to achieve that.”

Of being Chinese in the west, Chen said, “You can find yourself much more easily.”  In the Chinese culture, when the power of money speaks too loudly, “you can take inspiration from the west.”  Conversely, to escape “academic stiffness” in the West, “you can take from the Chinese.”  “Both cultures are so rich,” he said, “we can take from them what we want.”

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)

While Reflet is written for western instruments, its sound works a subtle, elegant interweaving of west and east.  The music, inspired by the ancient song San nong of 4th century Chinese musician Huan Yi, begins with a tender, flowing melody on solo cello.  Cellist Li-Wei Qin (born in Shanghai, though he moved to Australia when thirteen), played with the same rapt concentration, grace, and fluidity I’d seen in the Chinese instrumentalists two days before.

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.”

Though I knew the piece from a recording, live performance added visual theater even before the first note had been struck.  Jia Li (right) on pipa, Nan Wang (below right) on erhu, and Jing Chang (below left) on guzheng, took their places at the front of the stage. Gillian Keith and Elizabeth Atherton, the two western sopranos, stepped deep into the orchestra, and Xuanxuan Tang, an exotic presence in traditional Beijing Opera costume, stepped into the orchestra opposite them.

Ingenuous begins on hushed and silvery tones. A western soprano glides above the pipa’s delicate patter, and we are east and west at once.  Chaste opens on a lullaby of chords; the Chinese soprano coos and slides into high wavering song.  Sopranos, west and east, give chase on the agitated rhythms of Libertine. Falling notes on the guzheng open Sensitive; lyrical passages burst in pricks of pain.  From tranquil harmonies in Tender, a western soprano’s voice floats out. In Jealous, screaming strings signal distress.

With sinuous keening, the Chinese soprano and erhu grow Melancholic; a western soprano joins the lament.  Hysterical is given over to the Chinese soprano’s insistent hectoring, with horns bellowing in her wake.  

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.


This is the third in a three-part series.  The first part, Crossing a Bridge of Dreams, can be found here.  The second part, Ancient Instruments, Timeless Sounds, can be found here.

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.


Listening List

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  1/32/33/3


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.


Suze said...

A fitting post to wrap up the series, Sue. My question is this.

Did Messiaen's mentorship bridge the gap for Chen in terms of the 'piece that I thought full of emotions, then later thought it was superficial?'

This paragraph has me teased and cogitating:

'The first meeting with Messiaen lasted four hours, and Chen succeeded in becoming Messiaen’s student, his last. “I knew from that moment on,” said Chen, “everything had changed.” The experience of working with Messiaen, Chen said, had an “everlasting effect.”'

The images you have included with this post are truly beautiful. I like, also, the tidbit about the design inspiration for the Centre. It is always very pleasing when a building's structure has its foundation in objects of grandeur in nature.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Susan .. what a lovely piece of memorial writing of your Vale of Glamorgan Festival of Music with the BBC Wales Orchestra at the Millennium Centre ... I love those windows - glad you pointed that out.

I will have to take time out to listen to all your links - so I can fully appreciate the music.

We are fortunate that Chen was allowed out of China ...

John Metcalf OBE has helped you so much and given you and then us so much food for thought .. or music for the gods

Wonderful story of your evening ..

With many thoughts - Hilary

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Susan:
You offer so much for reflection and inspiration here in this carefully considered and intelligently written post.

We cannot profess to have anything approaching your understanding of Chen's music but, what it does have for us, is a wonderfully exciting cultural mix born of East and West. And, perhaps more importantly than this glorious cultural mix, is the way in which neither dominates, but, rather, each serves to bring out the very best of the other just as one would think of a successful marriage between two strong minded individuals.

To have travelled the distance you did for this Festival of Music speaks volumes in itself. What we are certain of through your writing is that every mile was worth it. This was history in the making.

Brigitta Huegel said...

Dear Sue,
thank you for that overwhelming post! The Millenium Centre is a very impressive building (I saw it for the first time on your photographs). Slate, materials from Wales' own ground - they form the foundation. Words cut into the wall, they are letting the spirit in.
Although different, it reminds me strongly of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh.
About the music I will think in another comment - I have to delve into it deeper before being able to.

Bruce Hodges said...

Beautiful review! I just heard "Iris devoilee" recently at Carnegie, and will post comments on it, but you set a high bar!

Jayne said...

"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." Oh my, Sue, this is just perfect--a perfect description of this piece!

Your photos of the Millennium Centre are marvelous. The architecture is simply amazing--the carved inscription windows, and the layers of varying colored slate. Remarkable. This all makes me want to get on the next plane to Wales. How fortunate for you to have been able to take this all in. Thanks for sharing. :)

Friko said...

Again, your time in Wales seems to have been well-spent and very fruitful. I went to a Chamber Music Concert on Friday with the Mid-Wales Chamber Music Group, an excellent group of section leaders from famous English and Welsh orchestras, but all they produced was the same old same old: Schubert, Mendelssohn and Mozart. I am saying 'all' but that is, of course, not what I really mean.

All my life that is the music I have listened to, I am beginning to think that I should open the door to the kind of music you are discovering for yourself. There is no reason why old and new masters cannot take equal billing in the repertoire.

I am glad your time in Cardiff has been as uplifting and stimulating as it clearly has. It also seems that I have missed a great treat. I won't do that again, if I can have your company.

Mark Kerstetter said...

Like Jayne I found your description absolutely beautiful and your first photo of the centre in particular is stunning. Reading this post and clicking on the photos while listening to the Plum Blossoms piece is inspiring to me, as a blogger. And once again I'm very happy to be following you on spotify; I'll be listening to this playlist while I write.

What I noticed on a first listen of 'Reflet' (the finale posted in your sidebar) is how it swelled into such a sumptuous and beautiful sound. So often (it seems to me) contemporary and modern composers have stayed away from this kind of - I want to say Tchaikovsky-esque - beauty. It's one of the things that impressed me about Greenstein's new piece too.

I was struck by what Chen had to say about taking from the best of both worlds. I've always been attracted to artists in all mediums who become expatriates, and no doubt this is one of the reasons.

Perhaps this story is related: I remember once in Miami going to a show at the downtown art museum of Latin American contemporary painters and having my eyes opened wide because it struck me at the time (the 80's) that these artists weren't burdened, as North American artists were, by a history of avant-garde isms. They clearly felt free to take from the history what they wanted, and felt free to include more traditional elements; they weren't afraid to be beautiful. This made a huge impression on me.

Thanks once again for a beautiful post and introduction to great music.

klahanie said...

Hi Susan,
What a lot of information you have covered within this delightful posting.
And, as per usual, your links take me on a wondrous tour of what you so understandably cherish.
It's a pity you were not here during BBC's Young Musician of the year was on. To entice, you might check this out,


Much respect and appreciation, Gary

Scott said...

Susan- Things have slowed somewhat. It's Saturday and pouring. As is my custom with Prufrocks, I need to take my time and savor it.
Self propelled transportation is best for feeling the landscape,I think. I liked Adams vision for the Centre. What a marvelous tribute to the cliffs at Southerdown. Layer upon layer upon layer.
I've listened to the excerpt from "Reflet" once and have started it again. Soothing and eerie. Maybe that's what a cello does to me. I appreciate how you likened it to a journey and especially a river. "eddies of gentle music" I really like this. A haven out of the current.
I liked the interview with Chen. I thought it was cool that he respected different cultures for what they offer.
My techno ability is limited. I don't know if I'll be able to find the other pieces. I was taken by the beautiful Cheng and the different sounding guzheng in your last post.
"a gorgeous complexity of two worlds entwined", for me, has hopeful and peaceful sound. A meeting of hearts and minds. A spirit of cooperation benefiting mankind.
Once again, thanks for making me think and introducing me to new things.

Steve Schwartzman said...

Thanks for this introduction to the Millennium Center, which I'd never heard of. I find the building quite striking, with its strata of stone and the hollowed out inscription on its façade. In looking for more information about the place, I discovered that some of the Welsh call the it "The Armadillo." They may never have seen one, or seen one only in a zoo, but armadillos are native to Texas, and we had some last year that kept rooting around making holes in our lawn. I prefer the holes of the letters cut through the stones.

Susan Scheid said...

Suze: I don’t know how or whether Messiaen affected Chen’s thinking on this, though I suspect it’s something that he recognized on his own, in any event. Chen’s comment reminded me of a comment Mark Kerstetter made on an earlier post about creating art: “People generally don't like to think about what takes place in the studio, but it involves taking distance from one's feelings.”

Hilary: So glad you enjoyed it! The thinking behind the windows, as part of a creative updating of an old model, was fascinating to discover.

Jane and Lance: Your insight into the intermingling of east and west in Chen’s music seems to me spot-on: “neither dominates, but, rather, each serves to bring out the very best of the other.” As for history in the making, I can only say I did feel I was witnessing something quite extraordinary in attending not only this concert, but the one of the musicians on traditional instruments that led up to it, not to mention hearing directly from Chen.

Britta: I think you’ve captured the building beautifully: “Slate, materials from Wales' own ground - they form the foundation. Words cut into the wall, they are letting the spirit in.” I have now looked at some photographs of the Scottish Parliament building, and I definitely see what you mean. It’s wonderful when architectural design so thoroughly captures and expresses a sense of place.

Bruce: Thanks for the kind words! I can hardly wait to read your post. I would have loved to have attended that concert, as well (amusing that they were on the same day), and experience what it was like to hear Iris Dévoilée preceded by Debussy and Messiaen, rather than, as at the Festival, preceded by a concert of soloists on traditional Chinese instruments.

Susan Scheid said...

Jayne: I’m so pleased you felt the description fit the piece. I quite despaired at points of coming up with words that would do it the least bit of justice. The Centre was a feast for the eye—and, as we all know, many architectural dreams don’t finally work so well in reality. This one, though, really did. (As for visiting Wales, it’s a beautiful country. I wasn’t able to get out into the countryside so much on this trip, but Cardiff alone is full of treasures—posts on that coming soon . . .)

Friko: It would have been enormous fun to go to these concerts together, and perhaps the future can give us that chance. Part of the trick to listening to contemporary classical music, of course, is to find reliable guides. Metcalf is certainly one, starting with his own music (all of which that is recorded I believe I now own—that’s how much I like his work), but also others composers he’s introduced in Festivals, including Arvo Pärt (Pärt attended that Festival!), Peter Sculthorpe, and this year, particularly, for me, Anne Boyd and Qigang Chen, neither of which I would have known of but for Metcalf. There is, of course, a good bit of chaff along with the wheat, but then, I think that goes for music over all time. What I think keeps me at it most of all is the thrill of discovery of new pieces I do like, as well as the opportunity to hear directly from the composers who wrote them—and even, sometimes, to hear them perform or conduct what they’ve written.

Mark: Thank you so much for the kind words. As I’ve already noted, I struggled mightily to find words that might begin to do justice to my experience of Chen’s music. Your comments on beauty and music are thoughtful and thought-provoking, and your comment, “they weren't afraid to be beautiful” are words I have already and will continue to come back to again and again. I am particularly thrilled that you noted that sumptuous swell in Chen’s Reflet. If you have had a chance to listen to the whole piece, I think you’ll see how artfully he builds to that moment. I cannot begin to tell you what it was like to hear this live, though I suspect you can imagine.

Gary: I did indeed check out the link. Just as with the young Chinese musicians and my “favorite rock band,” Contemporaneous, it is thrilling to witness the passionate engagement of musicians and composers coming up right now, before our eyes and ears.

Scott: Once again, you offer a wonderfully fresh perspective on what you hear. And I must make special note of your comment, “Self propelled transportation is best for feeling the landscape,” which I know is borne out of your own experience. I’d love to see those cliffs—I do think the architectural rendering evokes what I see in the photograph I found. I think you are right that the cello in Reflet a key to this piece—the pole in the water, carrying us along the current of Chen’s music. (As for listening further, I think you’re aware of the links I provide in the listening list to music on youtube—and the whole of Reflet can be found there, if of interest. As for Spotify, again only if of interest, it’s free to join and an amazing treasure trove of music—not just classical, by any means, BTW. The huge handicap now is you must be on Facebook to join. I didn’t have to do that, and I think it’s a terrible shame they require it now.)

Steve: Ah, yes, “the Armadillo.” I spotted that as well. Of course I love your amusing—or maybe not so amusing, come to think of it—real life commentary on that critter. Agreed, letters cut through stone are preferable!

Brigitta Huegel said...

Dear Sue,
now I listened to the music - and I like it very much. Being naive in music, I feel it is dramatic - it conquers wide spaces, is epic - and very touching when it is 'feeling'. I can see a lot while I listen.
Chen being in a foreign country accentuates differences more und thus enlightens by contrast.

Susan Scheid said...

Britta: I am so pleased you liked the music--it does seem to lend itself to visual imaginings, doesn't it? I like the idea of enlightening by contrast, too. Thank you so much for coming back for a listen!

wanderer said...

Catching up at last. I haven't yet had much chance to listen in length but have loved the read and the photos and must tell you that my CD has arrived and been played, and played. It works as soothing incidental music and on a much deeper level with meditative attention. The originality and beauty of Boyd's work becomes even more apparent the more you hear it, not surprisingly. So, thanks.

Susan Scheid said...

Wanderer: Good to see you, as always. Your comment about the Ars Nova CD (A Bridge of Dreams), "It works as soothing incidental music and on a much deeper level with meditative attention," makes such sense, and I like this comment, too, in its reminding us that a piece of music can be appreciated on several levels of attention and still be valuable. And you'll not be surprised to learn that I absolutely agree agree with you on Boyd's piece. BTW, it appears the Guardian agrees, as well. (Click here.)

Scott said...

Sue- Yes, I follow up all your links. I have found some real gems. And yes, it was the Facebook thing that tripped me up with Spotify. I don't know if I''m ready for that. I recently saw Ek profiled as one of the top entrepreneurs in Time.

Anil P said...

So much to learn in this post. So much new to me. The comment Chen made made about going deep into a particular sound quality in essence goes deep into my personality is so true considering how a pursuit can resonate with one's total being.

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