Hsiao-Mei Ku, distinguished violinist of the Ciompi Quartet, gave the second in a series of concerts devoted wholly or in part to the music of her teacher and mentor, the Chinese violinist, composer, and pedagogue Ma Sicong (1912-87). A year ago, she introduced Triangle music lovers to the master's music, performing three suite-like pieces and several shorter works in partnership with pianist Ning Lu of the University of Utah. The artists' CD of the October 2006 program has been released by Naxos.
Ma's musical career was curtailed ("devastated" is the word used in the program bio) by the Cultural Revolution. This led to his 1967 escape to America, where he was able to resume work. Four of the compositions heard on this November 11 recital, presented in Nelson Music Room in the East Duke Building, were composed in the US.
The intermission-less program seemed designed to be of CD length, and indeed Naxos expects this to be the next in their series devoted to Ma's music. As last year, there were several multi-movement works — a sonata and a suite — and some shorter works, many of which are of the nature of salon pieces, beloved of violinists everywhere (or at least beloved of violinists of a certain period not too long ago). On first hearing, few of the works seemed to reflect much in the way of Chinese influence. The most noticeably "Chinese" tunes turned up in several dance or dance-like numbers. Other pieces sounded like they might have sprung from Central or Eastern Europe; that surely reflects Ma's long teaching career and the fact that the violin is not a traditional Chinese instrument. To these ears, the evening's most rewarding musical works were three exquisite and charming rondos, one of which received its world premiere. These were among the evening's most engaging pieces, and they seemed to spark the greatest responses of the artists as well. It may be worth noting that 40 years of compositional effort were represented, ranging from a "Dance of Autumn Harvest" of 1944 to the Sonata No. 3 of 1984.
Lu demonstrated admirable keyboard and partnership skills, and Ku was her customary radiant self. The music was charming but perhaps a bit too much of a good thing for a full program. That said, one would welcome the chance to hear those rondos again, the short, six-part Gaoshan Suite (1981), said to be influenced by music from Taiwan, and the lively "Xinjiang Rhapsody" (1954) that brought the evening to a close.
Of perhaps greater import than the music was the devotion of Ku and Lu to reviving this music as a tribute to one of China's great teachers and advocates of Western art. That work lives on, not only in the many scores that are being edited and performed now but also in the day-to-day artistry of Ku and many others whose backgrounds include work with Ma and others like him in distant lands.
Note: Ma's String Quartet will be performed by the Mallarmé Chamber Players during the ensemble's February 3, 2008, concert — click here for details.