Glass #2: Study This

That the creation of a performing arts series is an art in itself was demonstrated last night during the performance of the complete set of piano études by Philip Glass, part of the Glass at 80 Festival, ongoing at Carolina Performing Arts. The 20 études were performed by 10 fine pianists, starting with Glass himself, in the beautifully renovated 450-seat Moeser Auditorium in Hill Hall, for which this event constituted a kind of grand opening (although it had been previously blessed by a dance–more on that later). As the audience filled the hall, we saw the gleaming grand piano center front, with bench–and nine more benches in a line upstage. Each bench had already been adjusted for the pianist who would use it. It was a wonderful visual.

Composed over a period of years (1991-2012) during which Glass made many larger pieces of music, the études in a way comprise a sketchbook of the composer’s thinking, and–although the analogy is not exact–the performance resembled a well-chosen art exhibition of artistically related meditations on a single subject by a master.

Music is, obviously, different from visual art in that it is not copied or referred to, but interpreted when taken up by a musician not the composer. Each player’s unique touch, style and essential personality makes something subtly different from a score. It would’ve been no fun to have 10 people play the precisely the same music, but having them each play a segment of the series worked beautifully to show how much interpretation can range, even in the performance of music by a living composer who is right there in the room. But hearing the entire sequence in one concert played by such different personalities (their biographies tell of their work and passion and achievements–on the website) was fantastic also because it made so many of Glass’s concerns clear–not just the crystalline patterns within the modules, or the patterns grown like crystals from the modules, or the emotional tone of particular chords and notes and melodic lines, or the effect of tempi, or color and texture in sound, but issues of oppositional balance; density and space; mass and ethereality; opacity and sheerness, and the layers in between.

What can I say? Hearing mature Glass play younger Glass was very wonderful. Everything else fell away, even the handsome room with great warm acoustics, and the other 449 extremely quiet and attentive listeners. Following him, for études numbers 3 and 4, came the youngest pianist in the program, Margaret Lynch, a junior at UNC-CH (a student of Clara Yang, who opened the program’s second half), who has taken every opportunity to work with the great pianists who have come to Carolina during her time there. Whereas numbers one and two had seemed composed of a play of complementary colors (chartreuse and burgundy), Lynch’s pair seemed made of shards of light changing places at a fast tempo. She performed beautifully, if with a high degree of tension beneath the polish and aplomb.

Mick Rossi, in a zippered black leather jacket, came next, and he had all the time in the world, drawing out the spaces between the dense, laden notes. Jenny Lin played numbers 7 and 8, leading us underground to caverns sparkling with mineral growths. Michael Riesman seemed to take us on an adventure with matter and anti-matter. That was just the first half.

After an intermission during which all were served with birthday cake and coffee, Clara Yang resumed the program with numbers 11 and 12, which struck me as very physical, with the music alternately wrestling and dancing and running wild with a sparkler and Yang keeping up without turning a hair. Aaron Diehl didn’t have any hair to turn, or it would have been jumping as he gave numbers 13 and 14 an almost stride blues interpretation. I was looking for him to kick over the bench any second. Timo Andres played the romantic daylights out of 15 and 16, so passionate and heart-stirring. This was the third time I’ve heard Andres, who is also a composer, and I find him very affecting–and not just because he’s tall and thin with barely controlled curls and wears neat-fitting suits and good leather shoes. He seems filled with longing and determination, which get out through his long fingers.

Anton Batagov had a regal and relaxed way with numbers 17 and 18, then Maki Namekawa swept on wearing hot pink pants and sandals under a gorgeous patterned robe, and finished off the series with a magisterial clarity. Her recording of the complete piano études went home with me from the merchandise table.

This was a very special event, brilliant in conception and beautifully carried out. I appreciated the true diversity of the cast, and the complete lack of cant about diversity. Complete in itself, the étude program also formed a vital facet of the entire Glass festival, which has been put together to serve a marvelous combination of artistic, pedagogic and liberal arts objectives while offering all sorts of excitement and enjoyment.

This kind of thing could give elitism a good name. It certainly puts a mighty glow on the oldest state university in the nation.

Tonight: the recreation of Lucinda Childs/Philip Glass/Sol LeWitt DANCE. Check the website for info on talks with Glass and the remaining performances.

 

 

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The China Philharmonic, with Clara Yang, at Carolina Performing Arts

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Clara Yang performing the world premiere of Chen Yi’s Four Spirits, a Carolina Performing Arts commission, in Beijing with the China Philharmonic Orchestra. Photo courtesy Clara Yang.

 

Clara Yang wore the same spectacular dress for the US premiere of Chen Yi’s Four Spirits last night in UNC’s Memorial Hall. A dress like that signals utter confidence; Yang’s playing equalled the dress in bold certitude. Carolina Performing Arts had commissioned the concerto for piano and orchestra for Yang to play on this occasion with the China Philharmonic Orchestra, and the composer Chen Yi was in the audience.

The world has changed so much in my lifetime. I never thought I’d live to see a composer whose childhood had been disrupted by Mao’s Cultural Revolution honored by a branch of the Chinese state that glorifies the very music that had been banned during those destructive years. When Yang took her bows, she called Chen Yi to the stage as well, and the top of my head nearly blew off. Chen Yi, now 63 and a professor in Kansas City, wore a pants suit, tailored to her, hardly a baggy worker’s uniform–but dark blue, with a Chairman Mao collar.

Each of the four movements in Four Spirits is an aural portrait of a mythical/spiritual animal from ancient Chinese culture, and each is quite different in character. Vivid, colorful and distinct, each aroused a different feeling in the listener. The piano alone takes the first bars–the entry of the Blue Dragon of the East–but from then on, the piano and orchestra bind tightly together. I thought the music was thrilling, rather in the way that a painted portrait can be thrilling when it feels true and insightful to the viewer. It might perhaps have been even better had actions occurred–what do these creatures do? But just to see them in the mind’s eye through sound was pretty mystical. I particularly liked the dual nature of the plodding Black Xuanwu of the North with its shimmering snake scales and percussive clickings, and the section in the White Tiger of the West that evokes the ghostly cat, its stripes like shadows among the flickering shadows of a bamboo grove, although the composer seemed to have a special affinity for the Red Phoenix in the South, which rose again and again in all its glory in the concerto’s final movement.

It is not often one gets to hear a well-known piece of music in a way that makes it seem as if one had never heard it before. After intermission, the orchestra played Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47 and conductor Long Yu’s interpretation was silken and subtle. It is such a strange piece, starting off sort of boilerplate–but ominous sounds weave in–the martial beat, rigid, coercive structures. In the second movement, an individual voice rings out in a gorgeous line from the first violin, but it’s quickly supplanted by pretty dances that ring with false gaiety. The third movement is infused with fearful melancholy, and the martial forces sound louder and closer. The final movement seems to indicate a kind of take-over, a crushing even, of the gentle and gay by powerful forces whose militaristic strength and gaudy glory are triumphant. Shostakovich wrote it in 1937, attempting to make a comeback rather than an exit through the gulag. It was a coded picture of life in Stalin’s USSR, but its enormous popularity allowed Shostakovich to be (somewhat) rehabilitated, and although he had another terrible bout with the authorities later, he lived until 1975.

It is a disturbing piece to me, and all the more so in this interpretation that somehow left more air, more space for one to feel and think, than is usually heard. There was nothing brash here, and what is beautiful in the music was very beautiful indeed. The massed strings, in perfect synchrony, even to the angles of the bows, were the very definition of lush. The percussion was outstanding; the first violin’s truncated solo was unforgettable; the flutes and harp were particularly lovely. It was indeed a gorgeous night at the symphony.

 

 

 

 

An Unprecedented Opportunity, Coming Up at Carolina Performing Arts

I rarely write previews, because–you don’t really know ahead of time. But sometimes the risk of an event turning out not so well is negligible, and the odds of it being astounding are very good.

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Maestro Long Yu conducts the China Philharmonic Orchestra. Photo: Yan Liang.

 

Carolina Performing Arts is bringing the China Philharmonic Orchestra to Memorial Hall in Chapel Hill, for one of five US performances. Maestro Long Yu will conduct. The odds of it being a particularly gorgeous night at the symphony are about 99.9%

In my lifetime China has changed convulsively. It has gone from destroying its high culture and its practitioners during the Cultural Revolution, to cultivating it and them in a big way: evidence for this includes the China Philharmonic, founded in 2000 from the China Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra. (Like North Carolina’s own Symphony, the China Phil is a division of a state agency.) By 2009, Gramophone Magazine was calling the China Phil “one of the world’s most inspiring orchestras.”

But wait! There’s more! The program will open with the US premiere of a concerto for piano and orchestra commissioned by Carolina Performing Arts from the distinguished composer Chen Yi for UNC Associate Professor Clara Yang, who is a concert pianist. Four Spirits represents in sound the four spiritual animals of ancient Chinese tradition: the Blue Dragon of the East; the White Tiger of the West; the Red Phoenix of the South; and the Black Xuanwu, a turtle-snake hybrid, of the North.

The premier Chinese government-sponsored orchestra will play a new work based in ancient culture, by an expatriate Chinese woman, written for another expatriate Chinese woman soloist. That the performance in Chapel Hill will not be the world premiere, is because that recently took place in Beijing, in a new auditorium in the ancient Forbidden City, palace of emperors. Tectonic cultural plates have shifted. This kind of superb cultural diplomacy was completely unimaginable earlier in my life. Who knows if it will continue uninterrupted by new geo-political complications. Carpe diem–or rather, seize the night, this Thursday, December 8. Even if this orchestra returns one day, they wouldn’t be playing this new music.

“It is a big deal,” Clara Yang told me. “To perform with the premier orchestra in China, in the Forbidden City Concert Hall, was incredible. It meant so much to me to work with these incredible musicians. It was even more meaningful to have my family there, and on top of that, my childhood teacher from when I was very young, she came.” Yang was born in Tianjin, near Beijing; her family emigrated to the California Bay Area when she was 13.

But how did this whole thing come about?

“The whole commission started with Emil Kang,” says Yang. Kang is executive director of Carolina Performing Arts, and a very forward-thinking man. Amy Russell, CPA’s director of programming explains:

“We are great admirers of Clara Yang and Chen Yi.  Clara is of course our colleague at UNC, but we have also collaborated with her many times in the past and she is not only a fantastic pianist and interpreter of new music, but also a vital creative partner.  Almost two years ago, we were made aware that the China Philharmonic would be touring the US and we jumped at the chance to present them, with their brilliant Music Director Maestro Yu.  At that time, they also invited us to participate in selecting the repertoire for their performance in Chapel Hill, and we realized the opportunity to make more of this than even a night of great music.  As we always have Clara in mind for new projects, we proposed to the orchestra that we commission Dr. Chen to write a piece for Clara and they agreed to perform it on the program.  Dr. Chen was immediately enthusiastic to write the concerto, and the rest, as they say, is history.”

Kang connected pianist Yang and composer Chen via email, YouTube, CDs, etc, but, says Yang, “before she started writing, I got to meet her and stay at her home [in Kansas City]. During the visit a sort of friendship developed. She is such a gracious person, so warm.

“Her music is full of life, of colors, of excitement, beauty–everything is in there!” says Yang. The concerto Four Spirits is “based on a few Chinese folksongs, but she goes off from there, she incorporates many techniques. Each movement sounds completely different, because is represents a different animal. The orchestration is very beautiful, very full.”

After Yang’s Beijing performance, she went into the audience to hear the rest of the program–Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony, the same work the China Phil will perform after intermission in Chapel Hill on the 8th. “They sounded really really great.”

Hear for yourself. Tickets here. Showtime 7:30.

 

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