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The Joys of Creation

New York
Miller Theater, Columbia University
12/05/2019 -  
Bright Sheng: Quartet No. 4 “Silent Temple” – Clearwater Rhapsody – Dance Capriccio – Deep Red
Pius Cheung (Marimba), Cathy Yang (Erhu), Vera Quartet: Rebecca Anderson, Pedro Rodriguez Rodriguez (violins), Inés Picado Molares (viola), Justin Goldsmith (cello); Clare Bourg, Maya Anjali Buchanan, Youjin Lee (Violins), Cynthia Phillippi (Viola), Albert Seo (Cello), Jason Henery (Double Bass), Jihoo Yu (Flute), Yan Liju (Clarinet), Kip Zimmerman (Oboe), Rachel Lee (Bassoon), Zitong Wang (Piano), Bright Sheng (Pianist, Conductor)

B. Sheng (© Courtesy of the Artist)

I hated everything about the Cultural Revolution. But, on the other hand, if it wasn’t for the Cultural Revolution, I probably would not be a musician, and would not have had as rich a life as I have now. Every coin has two sides.
Bright Sheng (1955– ), in interview with Lara Pellegrinelli

My first encounter with Bright Sheng’s music was anything but auspicious. A quarter-century ago, I was reviewing Yo-Yo Ma in Hong Kong. The usual Bach and Brahms, and the final piece was by somebody called “Bright Sheng” with the hardly inspired title, Seven Songs Heard in China.

My inner reaction was a yawn. I’d heard too many of these pentatonic banalities while living in Asia. My aural reaction, when I listened, was “Wow!! This is something absolutely exceptional.” The composer had turned these five-notes tunes into complex, inventive and, over the years in my mind, haunting poetry.

I had followed the music of Mr. Sheng (too rarely played in New York) with increasing admiration. It is music without pretension, without iconic “schools”, but with an unending creative touch, with quirky diversions, and with always–always–that rare sense of a composer who speaks in a peripherally alien language through which he is literate and firmly in control.

His own evolution was singular indeed. The scion of an educated Shanghai family whose piano had been stolen during the Cultural Revolution, his own “education” during that time was in Qinghai Province near the freezing Tibetan steppes, later study in America with (amongst others) Leonard Bernstein, who asked a question which shaped his future:

“Who,” asked Bernstein, “are you writing for?”

Last night, 20-year-old “Composer Portraits” celebrated Bright Sheng with four works. In one way, they portrayed the composer’s mind. As he admits, he is half-and-half Chinese and American. But never was one conscious of Chinese tunes glued to the fabrics. A few pentatonic measures were momentarily heard, but Mr. Sheng wasn’t ready to give us Chinese kitsch.

Rather, his music was complex but accessible, fiercely individual and fervently interesting. Each of the works had their challenges, but none drifted into a cerebral swamp.

The opening Fourth String Quartet, deftly played by the Vera Quartet, was pictorially based on an almost-deserted Chinese temple. But no visual picture was offered here, nor any simulated Buddhist chants. Rather, he started with somber chords of the ensemble, going into a strange-sounding second movement. Supposedly it was all pizzicato, but the strings augmented that with portamento rubbing on the fingerboards, creating both plucking and resonance together. The finale was like an emotional rondo. A rich, almost dancing theme, alternating with moments of lament, with more joy, with prayer-like meditation.

And like all Bright Sheng’s music, we were entranced by the magical protraction of his own thoughts.

C. Yang/P. Cheung (© Courtesy of the Artists)

Two works showed how he worked with phenomenal soloists. Cathy Yang did not simply play the erhu like a sensitive Oriental instrument. She sung her instrument, she gave out piercing soprano sounds, she took a single note and gave it a Callas-full of tone dimensions. Tuning the two-string instrument to the violin’s A and D, she gave it volume and soul, singing up to the highest notes, her cadenzas as gorgeous as any violin.

I was about to call her “the Argerich” of the erhu, except that Martha Argerich is loath to share her genius with others. Ms Yang shared her color and her expertise with violinist Clare Bourg in Clearwater Rhapsody (a picture of Mr. Sheung’s Hong Kong aerie above Clearwater Bay), and their duets, along with cellist Justin Goldsmith were both charming and exciting.

Mr. Sheng himself was the pianist, though his chinoiserie was secondary to the soloists.

Mr. Sheng proved equally deft as conductor in his Deep Red, originally written for Evelyn Glennie. The marimba soloist here. Pius Cheung simply defied the imagination.

Resembling a young Yul Brynner as King Mongkut, Mr. Cheung used up to eight mallets simultaneously, galloping down the marimba-board with abandon. Based upon a song written by the young Bright Sheng, the music barely touched on melody, though one could hear it peeping through the machinations.

No, this was not a concerto, despite a fairly full chamber orchestra. Yet so exciting was Mr. Cheung that one barely listened to the winds and strings. It was pure dazzlement.

My favorite of the four works was the penultimate Dance Capriccio, for string trio and piano. Supposedly, it was inspired by the songs and dances of the Sherpa people, who inhabited Qinghai, where Mr. Sheng was exiled. But Bright Sheng, like the mature Bartók, rarely quotes from actual songs and dances. He takes the feelings and the rhythms, and–in this piece–allows a few Tibetan measures to circumspectally show the music before darting back again.

Nonetheless, without recognition, I am confident that any Himalayan people would have felt the infectious joy throughout the work. The contrapuntal intricacies wouldn’t have fooled them for a moment. They would be aware, not only of the underlying delights and the simple sincerity of the composer but the pure delight of being alive.

Nor does one doubt that Bright Sheng physically participated in those songs and dances. The last section almost literally defined the drinking habits of these people. This writer, the composer, and the Sherpas could almost hear the drunken end of reveling evening. As they say in Lullaby of Gunan, Qinghai Sherpas don’t sleep tight until a happily inebriated dawn.

Such feelings and more emanated from Bright Sheng’s endlessly fertile mind. And though one can’t apologize for the Cultural Revolution (as he partly does in the quote above), one must rejoice that such unerring joy in composition came to us in a most enchanted evening.

Harry Rolnick



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