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.


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.


CLEAR & SWEET, on the stage at CPA

A magical, exhilarating performance at  Carolina Performing Arts on October 5 still has me resonating two days later. The work Clear & Sweet, by Seattle company  zoe | juniper, was repeated on the 6th in Carolina Memorial Hall, but sadly, the group has now left town. I have a good feeling, though, that we will see Zoe Scofield, Juniper Shuey and the rest of these performance artists here again.


Lighting and projections onto the enormous fringed “lamp shade” hanging over the circle in the square made mystical space for Clear & Sweet, by zoe | juniper, on the Memorial Hall stage 10/5/16. Photo courtesy Carolina Performing Arts.


“We approach the creation and presentation of our work with a belief that dance is a visual art form and visual art is a physical form,” says zoe | juniper in the company’s website mission statement. That is exactly how I think about it. “Considering the movement as though we were seeing a sculpture, film, or painting allows us to expand the medium of classical ballet vocabulary and how it functions in performance,” the statement continues. But in this case we saw sculpture, film, and painting; ballet vocabulary and passages and frills from other dance languages, all threaded through and enveloped with four-layered shape note singing and a reverberant, intermittent, sound score (Julian Martlew).

I responded so strongly because one of my primary values for an artwork is its approach to wholeness, the harmonious completeness it can have, in and of itself (no matter its shape, content or emotional qualities). Thus, what I mean by the shorthand “dance,” encompasses all the production elements: light, sound, costuming, and space-making with image or scenery. The more fully these elements are integrated with the kinetic–the choreography and its danced expression–the more satisfied I am. And I was very satisfied with Clear & Sweet, for not only does it achieve the wholeness which denotes thought-through artistic truth, each element is itself made with refined skill.

Clear & Sweet required an intimate setting with height, like the simple churches where shape note singing is traditional. Its architecture was created partly by the audience risers flanking the four sides of a square centered in the Memorial Hall stage, making the audience literally part of the piece, and very close to the dancers. With the stage contracted this way, the space above seemed to soar even higher. Centered in the square was a circle of light from above, the shaft of light permeably bounded by an enormous fringed “lamp shade” suspended from the grid. Various lighting effects and projections (Amiya Brown and Juniper Shuey) created different paintings and moving images on the shade and on the floor, changing throughout, but always keeping the brightest glow in the center circle. The center of each side of the square was marked a chair different from the audience chairs–a shape note singer sat in each one, so their hymn singing cast sound-lines across the circle in the square, meeting in its very center.

This is some serious mystical stuff.

The movement begins with one of the five dancers (the mystical pentagram suggested by its points?) wiggling and worming facedown around the circle, caressing the floor with their tresses. Others join, each on a separate earthly quest. The costumes (Christine Meyers) are lovely and disturbing. Made of thin linen, they convey a delicate strength. In places sheer, in others layered and gathered, they are modest but allow for full freedom of motion. But it is the colors that are so affecting: the colors of very ripe, slightly bruised, peaches. So there you, thinking about redworms and country churches and overripe fruit, when all the sudden all five bodies are face up, lying together inside the circle, where they launch a gorgeous, prone, sequence of elastic folding and interlocking in unison, reminiscent of Ohad Naharin-influenced Israeli Gaga style.

So much amazing dance ensued that it was hard to see how they got it all into a short 70 minutes. Much of it was balletic–but ballet torqued; stripped of prettiness and easy sentiment, it blended easily with the barely-contained energy of Gaga style, and with the effervescent Celtic steps. It has a simplicity and a generous quality throughout. There were some very powerful segments in which one or more of the dancers were blindfolded. From the beginning, all the movement languages speak of matters of spirit and faith. The piece, dramatically speaking, is well-structured–it entices, it builds, it culminates, it ends cleanly. The dancing itself, by Zoe Scofield, Ana Maria Lucaciu, Navarra Novy-Williams, Troy Ogilvie and Dominic Santia, was often extraordinary and always passionate.

My one quarrel was with the introduction of three pieces of spoken word. One was probably included to emphasize issues of faith and the submission of self to the faith group, whether church or dance company, and the ever-plaguing conflict in the arts between the leader and her collaborators. The auteur model is out of sync with the currently sensibility–egalitarianism is the byword today–its all about collaboration. Yet someone must lead; someone must have the final word. All this was perfectly clear without the insertion of words, and that first spoken bit was the only part of Sweet & Clear that struck me as a self-indulgent sop to fashion, blurry and overwrought. Because we process words so differently from music and image, this talky bit was interruptive of the flow, and threatened to dissolve the mystical atmosphere. The other two speeches, one in English, the other in Romanian, fitted a little better with the movement. They describe a young dancer’s studies, and how the better she got, the more alone she became. That is certainly the price of greatness in dance or any field, but did this obvious fact need verbalization within the speaking dance?

How can a piece like Sweet & Clear even get made, and made so that we can see it thousands of miles from the artists’ home? Increasingly, institutions like Carolina Performing Arts are vital to the making of such serious art. An astute director, like Emil Kang at CPA, or Aaron Greenwald at Duke Performances, builds relationships with artists so that over time as ideas and opportunities arise, their organizations can support the creation of today’s probing art.

Amy Russell , CPA’s director of programming explains: “Emil [Kang] had been following Zoe’s work for years and we met her for coffee about two years ago to see what she was working on and how we could support her next steps and she told us about this piece and we were just floored by the ideas and sentiment behind it and we agreed right there on the spot to be a co-commissioner.  So, the origin of the co-commission wasn’t through the official channel of NPN [National Performance Network], but rather more organically arising out of our relationship with Zoe directly.”

Collaboration is the order of the day on many commissions, too. On this one, CPA had five partners. That doesn’t take a thing away from their leadership, or from the astounding fact that they presented this jewel for a mere 300 or so people over two nights. Such intimate presentations will become more economically sensible when CPA gets its new black box theater in a year or two, but I so appreciate the grand theatrical gesture that put a tiny theatre inside a large one, and made a place for sign and portent.


Commissioned work Clear & Sweet in performance by zoe | juniper on the Memorial Hall stage 10/5/16. Photo courtesy Carolina Performing Arts.


Double Boulez

Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Photo: Marco Borggreve/ Deutsche Grammophon.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Photo: Marco Borggreve/ Deutsche Grammophon.

It’s tempting to just say, go here, and read Anthony Tommasini’s New York Times review of the program played in New York on the 16th by pianists Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich –the program they repeated in Carolina’s Memorial Hall March 18. Tommasini gives an excellent overview of the all-Boulez concert; however he says nothing about one of its most intriguing aspects.

The French pianist Aimard played at Carolina Performing Arts in November, 2012, giving an unforgettable concert featuring work by Claude Debussy. Afterwards, he mentioned to CPA director Emil Kang that he–with his former student Tamara Stefanovich–was working on a program that would include all of the piano music written by French modernist composer Pierre Boulez, with whom Aimard has long been close. Aimard was hoping to tour this somewhat daunting program in honor of Boulez’ forthcoming 90th birthday. Kang took up the challenge, making CPA the last of four stops on the US tour (Berkeley, Chicago, New York…Chapel Hill). Pierre Boulez will turn 90 next week.

One of the things that made this concert special was that the performers spoke (but not too much) about the works, giving them some context in musical history. The evening opened with Aimard playing Notations I-XII for piano, written by the 20-year-old Boulez at the end of WWII. They splinter and froth with complex emotions, a dozen new beginnings in 12-tone style from the wreckage of Europe. Aimard went on to play Boulez’ Sonata for Piano No. 1, from 1946, speaking beforehand of its “burning and icy sounds; its wild gestures, and the space floating or collapsing.” This, he said was “the music of a very young man who wants to make another French Revolution.” Certainly its spatial qualities are amazing, but more piercing are the extreme contrasts, which Aimard loads with color, from the bituminous tones of the lowest registers, to the nacreous pink high notes. Storming violet clouds shading toward bruised plum were pierced with fans of harsh viridian in the middle, the colors weaving together as the hands crisscrossed on the keyboard.

But then came the most illuminating aspect of the evening. One knows that each performer gives something different to the music, but here was a demonstration that would be hard to beat. Tamara Stefanovich took the stage to perform the Boulez Sonata for Piano No. 2, from 1948. It’s a much more advanced, complex work than the first sonata–she called it “monumental,” and “an acoustical tapestry that detonates in the finale”–but the extreme difference in coloration came from the performer. Stefanovich studied with Aimard; she played the same Steinway D–yet her palette was very different from Aimard’s. She’s very powerful, especially with her left hand, and stabbingly precise, though perhaps not as nuanced as Aimard, and much cooler. The undertones of her thundering low-register blacks, for instance, are blue and green, rather than golden.

One’s mind continued to explore this mystery of interpretation as the performers alternated again through the Cageian Sonata No. 3 (I thought I glimpsed the dancing ghost of Merce Cunningham), Incises, and Une page d’éphéméride. This last harks back to simplicity of the Notations, and the composer’s obvious delight in speed and risk seems more playful than destructive as it had in the Sonata No. 3.

Then, another Steinway was wheeled onstage, and the evening closed with Structures, deuxième livre, for two pianos, which allows the performers a measure of improvisatory freedom within the written score. They may take sections in different orders to make combinations that feel right at the moment. One plays, then signals to the other to respond–a musical poetry slam. You would have missed the fun of watching the challenging game, but if you’d closed your eyes, you would have been in no doubt of who was playing at any moment. Altogether, this was a most refreshing concert.

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