The formal introduction came about in the fine old (1837) Smedes Parlor at Saint Mary's School. There the latest edition of the school's excellent Smedes Parlor Concert Series offered the program, aptly entitled "EAST meets WEST," with secondary notation, "Sounds. Distant." (both periods are part of the title), about which, more presently.
Jennifer Chang and the guzheng represented East, as the entity being "introduced." This twenty-one string instrument emerged as yet another member of the zither-dulcimer-psaltery family, an utterly charming and versatile one to boot. Readers of these pages will rightly celebrate this musician's appearances in the Triangle area, and they know of her worldwide acclaim as soloist and teacher. The "introducer" was violinist Hsiao-mei Ku, whose credentials as Duke University music professor and member of the Ciompi Quartet are familiar to audiences throughout the eastern and western world. These two artists performed together as if they had been long-standing colleagues.
If you could imagine what a Chinese hoe-down would sound like, you were ready for the opener, a "Folk Song from Shanxi Province." Here the violinist was assisted on drums by Enloe High School senior Wesley Shang. The opening barn-burner section gave way to a violin solo of andante flavor. Guzheng and violin then collaborated as a chamber duo in "New Years' Eve" (1928) by Liu Tian-hua. The Chinese instrument's adaptability was evident as it readily assumed the role typically assigned to the piano for a thoroughly engaging number. It should be noted here that these arrangements were "ad hoc" by the performers in all but the last one. And, in a feat of true "second mile" dedication, the violinist had committed them to memory.
" A Reflection of Moon on the Er-quan Spring" (1950) by Hu Yanjun (sometimes known as A Bing) featured weeping violin plaintive melodies. Ms. Ku (who provided useful commentary throughout the evening) pointed out that the piece is sometimes referred to as the "Moonlight Sonata of the East." An arrangement of the ancient Chinese tune, "Nightfall on a Fishing Village," might be considered the musical high point of the program. Here the instruments were again equal participants, this time giving the effect of violin and harp. Although the Eastern influence was always palpable, the many melodies came across as quite "Western."
Among the others, the closing piece calls for special mention. Mark Kuss (born 1965) has created a composition especially for this unusual pair of instruments, "Sounds. Distant." mentioned above. This was one movement of a triptych written in conjunction with an upcoming exhibition at Duke's Nasher Museum regarding the Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangtze River in China. In this controversial assault on the natural order, many thousands of people have been uprooted and relocated to make space for the new inland sea. The music strikes one as a bit of an amalgam of the older works. That is, the composer seems to have mastered the Chinese "flavor." The melancholy opening might have represented the feelings of the dislocated masses. A furious section suggested the violence wreaked by the construction and the flooding. Frenzied lines evoked the turmoil of the peoples' flight.
One could scarcely have hoped for a more pleasant session of "other" music education. Ms. Ku powerfully provided the requisite bridge between the continents. With her accomplished artistry and her post-concert availability to demonstrate and explain, Ms. Chang was undoubtedly the ideal winsome ambassador to ensure that such "foreign" and forbidding music would become friendly and accessible.