‘Beyond the Cultural Revolution’ preview: cultural confluence

Chamber Music Northwest celebrates contemporary music by composers of Chinese heritage

Two decades ago, Chamber Music Northwest artistic director David Shifrin, the clarinetist who still leads the Portland festival, had admired a clarinet quintet written for him by Bright Sheng, one of China’s finest composers, who’d moved to the United States in 1982. Shifrin asked Sheng to compose a new music theater piece for CMNW and other classical music presenters.

Inspired by a legend from his native China, Sheng’s The Silver River premiered at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival in 1997 and went on to acclaimed performances in New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, London, and beyond.

A scene from Bright Sheng’s opera, “The Silver River” at the John Jay College Theater, presented by the Lincoln Center Festival 2002. Photo: ©Stephanie Berger.

But not in Portland. Back in the 1990s, CMNW administrators, then accustomed to little more staging than a few chairs, music stands, and maybe a piano, looked at the forces required for Sheng’s opera — singers, dancers, actor, choreographer, stage director, classical chamber ensemble, pipa (the banjo-like Chinese lute), props (eventually including a huge heated water tank in which the actors performed), costumes, et al — and blanched.

“We determined we couldn’t afford to produce something that large,” says current CMNW executive director Peter Bilotta. But it remained on Shifrin’s “bucket list” to bring to CMNW before he retires in 2020. With the organization expanding and diversifying as never before, says Bilotta, “we decided to make the resources available and do it.”

On Saturday and Sunday at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland audiences will at last get to experience the work CMNW helped create — with the composer in town to see it.

CMNW also decided to use The Silver River as the tentpole for a broader celebration of Chinese-influenced music. Beyond the Cultural Revolution comprises seven events happening this Thursday through Sunday, including the two opera performances, coffee with the composer, and premieres of new works commissioned by CMNW from composers of Chinese heritage.

From China to America

Bright Sheng is used to delayed gratification like the long gap between the commission and Portland performance of his opera. The Shanghai native became a victim of China’s 1960s Cultural Revolution at age 15, when the Communist government closed the universities and shipped Sheng and other promising young composers off to the provinces. He performed and studied the folk music of Northwest China’s Tibetan border region, which would influence his own compositions.

Bright Sheng

By the time Shanghai’s famous conservatory reopened, he was 22, and part of an extraordinary class of pent-up composers who all arrived at the same time. Several — Tan Dun, Chen Yi, Zhou Long, and Sheng himself — subsequently moved to the West and became world famous, their music fueling an unprecedented explosion of contemporary Chinese classical music. Much of it has been performed in Portland by ensembles such as Kronos Quartet and especially Third Angle, which brought Zhou Long and Chen Yi  to performances of their music in 2001 (and recorded an album of her music), and presented Chinese music at Portland Art Museum and a fascinating 2013 performance of Chinese music by various composers at Portland’s Lan Su Chinese Garden.

Now one of the world’s most respected living composers, with works performed by almost every major orchestra, Sheng helped Yo Yo Ma create the Silk Road project and has taught for many years at the University of Michigan. His Silver River combines musical influences from the Chinese opera he heard growing up and from Western opera. (Thanks to Madame Mao, Chinese opera was the one form of art music that found official favor during the Cultural Revolution.) The classical musicians double on Chinese percussion and even sing a bit. The pipa player also plays a goddess onstage; the flutist appears as a cowherd; the singer also speaks and interacts with other performers.

“It’s musical theater in the old sense, not the Broadway kind,” Sheng said. This more recent version, which runs just over an hour, also provides lower cost props (no water tank). “Sometimes having less of a budget stimulates the imagination more,” Sheng chuckled. New York magazine called his score “a small miracle of economy, invention, and musical integrity.”

David Henry Hwang in 2008. Photo: Lia Chang.

The Tony Award winner David Henry Hwang, who wrote M. Butterfly, Philip Glass’s 1000 Airplanes on the Roof and many other stage works, wrote the one-act story, narrated onstage by a celestial golden buffalo. It recounts an ancient Chinese legend about the tragic, eternal love between a weaver goddess and a mortal cowherd, facilitated by a Jade Emperor. They produced two offspring, Night and Day, and cross the silver river — what Westerners call the Milky Way — to meet only once a year.

“These precious minutes and hours,
Are the sweetest of all dreams;
When lovers unite like water and air.”

The same myth, which the libretto says “celebrates the dream of a perfect love struggling to survive in our imperfect world,” underlies Qixi, or Chinese Valentine’s Day, celebrated July 7. Like the lovers’ reunion, CMNW’s production of The Silver River at last reunites two entities that were meant for one another.

Oregon composer Pius Cheung’s music will be performed at Chamber Music Northwest.

Two Generations

The other Beyond the Cultural Revolution concerts include Sheng’s piano trio (with Shifrin on clarinet) Tibetan Dance, Zhou Long’s Taiping Drum, University of Oregon percussion professor Pius Cheung’s solo Nian3, solo pipa music, and young composer Kai-Young Chan’s string quartet Ignis fatuus, all at noon Friday at Portland State.

That night at Portland’s Lan Su Classical Chinese Garden, celebrated violinist Cho-Liang Lin plays Sheng’s The Stream Flows, and clarinetist Romie de Guise-Langlois joins Daedalus Quartet for Chinese-Canadian composer Vivian Fung’s CMNW commission Frenetic Memories, both based on Chinese folk tunes the composers heard on travels there. Chen Yi’s trio Ning, commemorating Japan’s notorious 1937 massacre and mass rape in Nanjing, closes the show.

On Monday, after starring in The Silver River, the world’s most famous pipa virtuosa, Wu Man, returns with the Miro Quartet in the premiere of Sheng’s contemporary Xiaogang Ye’s CMNW commission Gardenia, then, after a reprise of Frenetic Memories, joins a CMNW string quartet in Tan Dun’s Ghost Opera, made famous by Kronos Quartet.

The program reflects the richness and range of contemporary Chinese “classical” music. Sheng attributes its popularity here to “the West’s long fascination with the East, and vice versa,” and also the abrupt ending of China’s long isolation from the West. And he notes that Chinese music, like American music, is itself a product of many, many hybrids and influences from Central Asia and beyond.

Pipa master Wu Man performs in two concerts at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Kuandi Studio.

Already, he says, his music is considered American in China, Chinese in America. Unlike Sheng and Zhou Long and Chen Yi and Tan Dun, who had already absorbed and played traditional Chinese music before they began conservatory study in their 20s, today’s Chinese-American composers usually leave for study in Europe or America in their teens. “Their cultural backgrounds are different,” he says. And with so many different kinds of music available to them from a young age, “everyone is quite unique depending on what they’re interested in doing.”

Sheng predicts continuing fruitful fusions of Eastern and Western music. “It’s inevitable,” he says. “All cultures will try to preserve their identity, but it’s all part of the global melting pot and now it’s everywhere. There’s no pure culture, no pure race. The whole ideal of anything pure doesn’t exist. Eventually a universal musical and cultural language will emerge. Nowadays it’s so obvious; with e-commerce, everything in the world is under our fingertips.”

CMNW’s Chinese music concerts happen at a moment when the China and the US are skirmishing over trade and throwing up barriers. Politicians and racists may futilely try to erect walls between cultures. But if Bright Sheng is correct, thanks to composers and other artists, the rivers that connect human cultures will inevitably flow unimpeded, everywhere.

Chamber Music Northwest presents Beyond the Cultural RevolutionThursday-Monday, July 19-23 at Kaul Auditorium, 3203 S.E. Woodstock Blvd.; Lan Su Chinese Garden, 239 N.W. Everett St.; and Lincoln Hall, 1620 S.W. Park Ave. Tickets online or at  503-294-6400. A shorter version of this story appears in The Oregonian/Oregon Live.

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