Chamber Music Review Print



Eastern Music Festival: Chinese "Opera" Meets Beethoven and Dvorák

July 13, 2009 - Greensboro, NC:


In the fall, Monday nights might mean football, but in July, the evenings are devoted to chamber music performed by Eastern Music Festival faculty members and guest artists at UNCG’s Recital Hall. Monday night’s performance featured both the tried and true as well as a new piece from a couple of years ago.

Composer/pianist/conductor Bright Sheng (b. 1955) has garnered many awards and is one of the hottest musicians on the scene today. Monday night, he was pianist for his 2006 composition “A Night at the Chinese Opera” written for violin and piano. According to the program notes, the basic materials for the piece come from music in the “well-known Peking Opera, Farewell My Concubine” (upon which the film of the same title is based). The piece was commissioned by the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis and was one of the required pieces all contestants had to perform.

Violinist Jessica Guideri played this new score with confidence and élan. “A Night” begins with percussive notes hammered out in the extreme high register of the piano, to which the violin responds with wisps of sound. Drama is very much a part of the piece, but there is much that is delicate as well. Many sections feature exchanges back and forth between the violin and piano, often using a three-note motive that appears in much of the work. There are sections that definitely sound Asian because of the frequent use of the pentatonic (five-note) scale.

The score calls for many different violin sounds including a haunting one where Guideri skimmed the strings, creating a ghostly effect. Then there was the middle section in which she had lots of descending glissandos. Sheng, for his part, carved out the piano part with poise and self-assurance.

Sheng and Guideri returned as two of the musicians in a reading of Dvorák’s Piano Quintet in A, Op. 81.  Joining the two were Jeremy Preston (violin), Danielle Farina (viola), and Neal Cary (cello). The quintet reveals a composer at the top of his craft and brims with great tunes and vital dance rhythms.  And this was a glorious reading that reveled in the quintessential Bohemian work.

The beginning of the Allegro was languid and featured a great tune presented by the cello, but soon the tempo livened up and all five musicians dove in with a lot of soul and tons of energy.  The second movement is a multi-sectional dumka (a Czech dance), which alternates between sweetness and action. Dvorák must have loved the viola, as he certainly gave lots of great tunes to that instrument, both here and in the other movements. These were exquisitely intoned by Farina.

The third movement is a furiant (an energetic dance), which provided great fun. The finale is a boisterous affair (my daughter called it a “hoedown”), and here Sheng’s piano skills came to the fore with playing that absolutely sparkled. The strange hymn-like passage toward the end of the piece was heavenly and made the final rush to the end that much more effective.

The evening opened with Beethoven’s youthful Quintet in E-flat, Op. 16, a work for oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn and piano played by Randall Ellis, Shannon Scott, Mark Timmerman, Kevin Reid, and Gideon Rubin respectively. Incidentally, the composer made an arrangement of this for violin, viola, cello and piano, also published as Op. 16.

The movement begins with a stately passage that introduces each instrument in turn. Following is an Allegro that is primarily led by clarinet and piano, with the other instruments joining in.  The second movement is a lovely rondo with beautiful themes, solidly played by the five. The finale is brilliant and fast, with lots of gruff humor.