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Concert Review of Sheng with DSO

Music leads DSO to China

Composer conducts views of tragedy

By Mark Stryker / Free Press Music Critic / October 18, 2008

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra belatedly addresses an inexplicable omission from its repertoire by performing two works this weekend by Bright Sheng, with the composer on hand to conduct a thoughtful program exploring various reflections of tragedy.

These pieces are the first by Sheng that the DSO has played on subscription concerts. Why it took so long remains a mystery. After all, the Chinese-born Sheng, 52, is not only one of America's most compelling composers and a winner of a 2001 MacArthur Fellowship, he's also local; he has taught at the University of Michigan since 1995. Well, better late than never. Way better.

Sheng's searing "Nanking! Nanking! A Threnody for Orchestra and Pipa," a 27-minute parable inspired by the 1937 Japanese brutal massacre of China's then-capital city, made an extraordinary impact on Friday morning. The music's indivisible fusion of Chinese and Western idioms defines the composer's aesthetic at its most profound.

Like Bela Bartok, the early 20th-Century Hungarian composer who channeled the life force of Hungarian melodies and rhythms into the most sophisticated classical music, Sheng does the same with Chinese sources -- without resorting to chinoiserie clichés or denying the raw beauty and emotion of the original. (Sheng's fellow Chinese-born composers Chen Yi, Tan Dun and others are working in a similar vein.)

In "Nanking! Nanking!" (2000), the melodic colors and intervals are redolent of China but full of mystery, perhaps alluding to folk song without direct quotation. The harmony is modal, the orchestration tangy and fresh, with the solo pipa (Chinese lute) often sharing a song with a single instrument or two (flute, contrabassoon, violin, a pair of piccolos). The music evolves from foreboding calm -- violas and cellos creep around chromatically over distant woodblock ticks -- to lacerating bursts of brass and percussion and frightfully hammered figures.

The pipa, played with authority Friday by Yang Wei, is cast in the role of victim, witness and survivor of the massacre. The pipa strums rhapsodic laments that sometimes weep and sometimes wail, but the pleas for humanity cannot quell the evil. And yet there are glimmers of hope. Near the close, a few tender strings and harp suggest a post-apocalyptic dawn -- though the explosive coda is a fitting epitaph for a century darkened by so much atrocity.

Sheng proved an effective advocate on the podium, drawing fiercely committed and intense playing from the DSO and turning quickly from bracing climaxes to finely etched details. The strings swelled with emotion and the many individual obbligatos across the orchestra spoke with character.

Sheng's "Tibetan Swing" is lighter fare -- a nine-minute sprint based on pulsating dance rhythm rooted in the seven years that the teenage Sheng spent assigned to the Qinghai province during Mao's Cultural Revolution. The music is built from the ground up in playfully interlocking layers.

The program opened and closed with music by Prokofiev that reflected the tragedy theme, the short "Overture to War and Peace" and "Romeo and Juliet, Suite No. 2," whose familiar contours were given a stirring if sometimes overly frenzied performance. Offered as an encore, Sheng's inventive orchestration of Brahms' Piano Intermezzo, Op. 118, No. 2, ended the concert on a note of quiet nostalgia and wistful, beautiful melancholy.


Bright Sheng with DSO



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