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Bright Sheng as Composer and Conductor with
EMF's Eastern Symphony Orchestra

by William Thomas Walker

July 16, 2009, Greensboro, NC: This has been a very exciting week for everyone at the Eastern Music Festival. For the first time in the Festival's forty-seven seasons, a composer-in-residence has been chosen. Bright Sheng (Shanghai, China, 1955) is one of the most exciting and prominent of contemporary composers. His artistic goal is to create a musical "fusion" by drawing upon both his Chinese musical heritage and the wealth of Western musical tradition. He is wearing all three of his "artistic hats" over the course of his residency, as composer, as conductor, and as piano accompanist. As a stringer for a now defunct Triangle publication, I had reviewed Sheng's impressive performance of his Piano Trio as part of the Chamber Music Series of the 2000 Spoleto Festival USA and CVNC has reviewed him several times since, including June 28, 2007 at the EMF.

Shostakovich's Festival Overture, Op. 96 was dropped from the printed program and the rehearsal time had been well spent on the two major works. I have never warmed to the work but William Trotter's excellent program notes had put it in an interesting context.

Bright Sheng addressed the audience before conducting his Flute Moon, for flute, harp, piano, percussion, and strings (1999). He explained it is cast in two asymmetrical movements with the soloist playing a piccolo for the first, longer movement and a flute for the second. It is intended to function on two levels at once. The opening of the first movement, "Chi Lin's Dance" depicts the clumsy dance of a huge, but beneficent mated pair of mythical Chinese beasts. Sheng described them as being twelve feet tall, having the head of a dragon, fish scales, and hoofs. The male (Chi) bears a proud horn while the female (Lin) is represented by flute and strings. The whole back stage was filled with multiple percussion instruments, including multiple xylophones and tubular bells, to help paint their awkward terpsichore. The more lyrical and introspective second movement is based upon a "12th century folk melody attributed to one of China's most famous 'troubadour poets,' Jiang Kin (1155- c.1235)." Sheng said the apparent song of love lost was a veiled allegory for mourning over political loss. Trotter's program note says it’s a metaphoric reference to the decline of the Emperor Yao before a barbarian invasion from Manchuria.

The superb soloist was the faculty orchestra's principal flute Les Roettges. Sheng's scoring for piccolo was far more subtle than a "high soaring fireworks" sound such as the infamous part near the end of "The Stars and Stripes Forever" or in a number of Rossini overtures. Roettges brought a wide and unsuspected palette of color from the piccolo's middle and lower range. He brought out all the expressive possibilities of the composer's gorgeous flute writing in the last movement. He played with focused intonation and refined tone. His breath control for both instruments was exceptional.

The all student orchestra players gave Sheng everything he asked for, playing with lock step ensemble, moving as one for every shift in dynamics or tempo. The strings were rich and warm and the vast percussion section had a field day, whether in a huge, relentless forte, or the haunting sound of distant bells at the end.

The Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), which I love, has been programmed so many times by so many ensembles of varying degrees of skill and inspiration in the Triangle that I cringe when I see it yet again on a program. Yet there is a reason it's a celebrated "warhorse" of the repertoire and the committed, fiery interpretation Bright Sheng brought to the piece and the "no prisoners taken," passionate playing of his young musicians was a sterling example of why.

The low strings, double-basses and cellos were full and rich as they dug their bows into the opening. Violas played with glowing warmth. Violins were secure in intonation, playing as one in their highest registers. The brass sections were superb. Sheng's phrasing and tempo choices seemed ideal and his players followed every shift of dynamics or pacing. The important clarinet solo in the opening movement was given a fine performance by an unidentified student as was the expressive, unidentified horn soloist for the extended opening of the second movement. Sheng's conducting of the third, waltz-like movement was the most memorable I have heard.

   
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