For anyone with a Sunday afternoon yen for some Eastern music, NCSU’s Stewart Theater was certainly the place to be. It was there that the Raleigh Civic Symphony Association staged the multi-media offering “China Dreams: Tradition and Technology.” Presented here were two dissimilar works, one distinctly oriental and the other less so.
The Chinese composer He Zhanhao has written the piece “Lamentation of a Hero: General Yue Fei,” celebrating the life of this 12th-century legendary character and also mourning the injustice meted out to him. The oriental flavor of this concerto is provided mainly by use of the guzheng as a solo instrument. The program notes pointed out that this ancient zither-related device is possibly the most popular concert instrument in China. To “Western” ears it conjured up images of harp and guitar, along with the more obvious zither.
Working without a score, the crowd-pleasing Jennifer Chang was the soloist. It was a joy and a curiosity to watch her negotiate those twenty-one strings, especially so for those many for whom the device was quite new. Conductor Randolph Foy led the fine and well-prepared players in this spirited piece. The lush orchestration brought to mind the likes of Sibelius, or even Prokofiev,. Had the solo instrument been, say, a harp, many hearers might well have missed the China connection altogether.
During intermission, the stage was set for the slide-show aspects of the second half. “The Map: Concerto for Cello, Video and Orchestra” was composed by Tan Dun. The solo action was furnished by Bonnie Thron, the noted and highly praised principal cellist of the North Carolina Symphony. Given what must surely have been an unfamiliar and intimidating score, she seemed able to treat it as just another slice-of-life piece. Indeed, most of the orchestra members were at times called upon to perform “unnatural acts” with their instruments, such as using only the mouthpiece, playing on the wrong side of the bridge, beating with the back of the bow. It is doubtful that many of these actions can be indicated by universal music symbols.
The concerto consists of nine movements, each with its accompanying slide show depicting a scene or vignette from Tan’s homeland, the Hunan region of China. The players then, and particularly the soloist, have to synchronize their actions to the pre-existing rhythms. For instance, in the “Tongue Singing” movement, Thron was impressive in her ability to “accompany” the singers, much as if they had all performed simultaneously. In other movements, the cello and orchestra performed similar feats. The video clips (some of them continuing to a degree bordering on tedium) set the stage for each movement. Then the instruments would mimic many of the sounds, frequently improving upon the original.
This was a piece that Foy had programmed to deserved acclaim with his impressive student orchestra at the 2007 Governor’s School in Winston-Salem. It is a work that everyone should probably hear (and see) a time or two. Whether it would stand up to repeated exposure could be vigorously debated.