Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Sheng, the China dreamer

Most people would be hard pressed to mention a Chinese composer of classical music. Although the Yellow River piano concerto and the Butterfly lovers violin concerto have had some exposure in the West, who remembers the names of the composers? By the way, they were both writen by a duo of composers, Yin Chengzong/Chu Wanghua and Chen Gang/He Zhanhao. But for recent classical music, the only name that might pop up occasionally is Tan Dun, best known for movie scores. Enter Bright Sheng, born in Shanghai in 1955. His works are fascinating, combining a modern neo-romantic idiom, building on influences by Bartok, Stravinsky and Varese, with Chinese themes, both in subjects and in musical effects. This Naxos CD is an excellent introduction. The closing track, Nanking! Nanking!, a threnody for pipa and orchestra inspired by the Nanjing masscare, is the best piece here and deserves regular airing in concert halls (provided you can find a virtuoso pipa player of course). The opener China dreams is a luscious orchestral piece, combining dissonance and lyricism, and although a bit patchy, well worth investigating. Inbetween we have two poems for soprano and orchestra, with perhaps the most direct Chinese influence in the vocal lines, well delivered by Juliana Gondek. All in all, a highly recommended CD to introduce a fascinating composer.