Two of the pillars of the Mallarmé Chamber Players have spent significant time in the far east, playing and teaching their instruments as well as learning about Oriental music. Artistic Director and flutist Anna Wilson spent a sabbatical year in Viet Nam, and cellist Jonathan Kramer spent his in Korea.
Now the time has come to reciprocate. Professor Seung-Il Kim, Professor of Composition at Chosun University in South Korea is currently a Visiting Professor at NCSU, the guest of Kramer. Cuong Huang, Director of the City Conservatory of Ho Chi Minh City, is currently a Visiting Scholar with Mallarmé and a guest of Anna and Steve Wilson. Together with dan bau player Phong Nguyen, they were the inspiration for a program of chamber music from China, Korea and Viet Nam to celebrate Tet, or the lunar New Year.
Listening to an afternoon of music that tries to blend east and west makes it again clear how difficult it is for orientally-trained musicians to find their own language in this western medium (and vice versa). Too much of the music, lovely as it often is, sounds stuck in Western late Romantic idiom written in eastern modes, or scales. In the performances, Wilson, Nguyen and Kramer were joined by pianist Deborah Hollis and violinist Hsiao-mei Ku, whose intimate knowledge of Oriental music was evident both from her outstanding performance and her clear verbal explanations.
The program opened with Theme and Variations for flute and piano by Than-Ha Tran, a Vietnamese composer living in Hanoi. Wilson was at ease with the work, having performed it for Viet Nam National Television in 2000, and her performance enlivened a somewhat dreamy and low-key work. Oddly enough, the composer used as a model Franz Schubert's own variations on the theme from his Lied "Trockene Blumen."
Lamentation and Desire for solo cello by Seung-Il Kim was played by Kramer with a great deal of passion. The rhythm - typical for oriental music - fluctuates, and while the music may be Korean, the keening of lamentation sounds the same in any language.
Chinese composer Bright Sheng is currently professor of composition at the University of Michigan. He wrote his Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano in 1990 on a commission from the Naumburg Foundation. The composer states that he sought to develop his own concept of tonality by unifying his mother tongue (Oriental classical and folk music) and father tongue (Western classical music). The four movements of the Trio are really four vignettes, with the violin playing mostly in harmonics, in imitation of the sound of the Chinese fiddle. Sheng's use of the piano to replicate the sound of Oriental tunable percussion instruments does not work well because the piano with its fixed pitches cannot reproduce the subtle changes in pitch within a single stroke characteristic of some of the Oriental instruments. This limitation was especially noticeable in the last movement.
The second half of the program brought with it a couple of those train wrecks that are nobody's fault and are, unfortunately, sometimes not fixable. The Vietnamese monochord, the dan bau, has the unique feature that one end of the string is attached to an upright flexible piece of bamboo or buffalo horn. By flexing the upright piece, the pitch can be changed creating vibrato or glissando effects. The instrument shares a weakness with the clavichord in that its tone is extremely soft and can be heard only in a small room with the doors closed and the children asleep. Consequently, every contemporary dan bau now uses a built-in pick-up to hook up with an amplifier.
Trouble began when Nguyen tried to demonstrate the instrument only to find that the pick-up had given up the ghost. Attempts to gerry-rig an external microphone to pick up the weak sound was not satisfactory, but Nguyen's demonstration of two other Vietnamese instruments, the roding , or tube zither with 13 strings, from the Vietnamese highlands, and the dan tranh , a 16 string board zither, similar to the Japanese koto, was interesting and delightful. According to Nguyen, the roding is the father of all Oriental zithers
The final work on the program was to have been the world premiere of Hoang's Thoa Noi Nho Mong (Yearning for Things Past) for dan bau , flute, cello and piano, commissioned by Mallarmé with a grant from the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation and the North Carolina Arts Council. Unfortunately, the external amplification of the sick dan bau was simply too weak to compete with the other instruments and when, in the middle, its string snapped, Ku (here turning pages) and Nguyen tried to substitute by singing. It was a valiant try, but we would like to hear the work again with a working instrument before we make any comment about it.
Last year, when Ku was in China, she met composer Qiufeng Zheng and performed and recorded his Sinian (Longing for the Past) and Xiyou (Happy Wanderings at the Fair) for violin and piano. Ku's performance of the two short works was outstanding. The first sounded like the Chinese equivalent of Victorian parlor music, the second like Chinese Gypsy music.
Sadly and coincidentally, composer Lou Harrison died on Sunday, at about the same time as the Mallarmé concert. Harrison was one of the first exponents of merging Eastern and Western music and frequently used Eastern instruments in his compositions. Harrison would have heartily approved of the concert.
To extend the far eastern theme, the concert was preceded with a demonstration of a Japanese tea ceremony. While the demonstration was interesting, instructive and delightful, it had nothing to do with the theme of the concert, since the Japanese do not celebrate the Lunar New Year.