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Cultural Revolution

At the Lincoln Center Festival, two chamber operas show that Chinese composers have taken a (truly) great leap forward; Riccardo Muti leads a triumphant 9/11 tribute.

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Sing me a river: The New York premiere of The Silver River.  

As the world gets smaller, musical bridges from one country to another seem to become more plentiful as well as easier to cross. And they are being built with more refined tools than were ever used a generation ago. Does anyone remember the Yellow River Concerto? Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra brought that composed-by-committee monstrosity back from their pioneering trip to China in 1973, and the music's pseudo-Rachmaninoff banality was positively breathtaking. Today, composers reared in China, whether they remain at home or move to the West, write a very different kind of music for the global market, one that blends various cultural influences with far more sophistication and originality.

Born in Shanghai and an American resident for more than twenty years, Bright Sheng at 45 is one of that generation's most eloquent voices. The score for his 70-minute chamber opera, The Silver River -- a Lincoln Center Festival presentation at the John Jay College Theater -- is so exquisitely fashioned that one rather regrets David Henry Hwang's self-regarding text, which tends to get in the way of the music. The 5,000-year-old legend of the enduring love between the Goddess-Weaver and a mortal cowherd is a lovely one, symbolically represented by the once-a-year reunion of Vega and Altair as those two stars cross over the Silver River, better known as the Milky Way. Hwang's dramatization of the tale has its ingenious touches -- giving the two lovers onstage instrumental counterparts was an especially happy idea -- but the arty pretensions of the language are off-putting. And the Golden Buffalo, a wisecracking narrator apparently modeled on Whoopi Goldberg, was a major miscalculation.

But there is always Sheng's gorgeous score to enjoy, a small miracle of economy, invention, and musical integrity that draws on all the resources of a tiny ensemble of violin, clarinet, cello, and percussion augmented by an onstage flute and pipa. The latter, a Chinese version of the medieval lute, and an active battery of percussion supply the Eastern flavor, while the other instruments provide an international touch that conjures up all the color, fantasy, and flair suggested by the story. Add Ong Keng Sen's fluid direction, Christine Jones's poetic set, and an accomplished cast of singers, actors, dancers, and instrumentalists, and The Silver River flows magically despite its verbal distractions.

Ulike Bright Sheng, Guo Wenjing, also 45, has elected to remain in China, where he teaches at Beijing's Central Conservatory. His music also freely mixes Western elements with native traditions in ways that would surely have been unthinkable if not impossible for a resident Chinese composer during the Cultural Revolution. I suppose it is a sign of progress that China today, like big government the world over, considers new music not so much a threat as a harmless irrelevancy, and Guo is pretty much left alone to do as he pleases. Over the past decade, he has also emerged as one of the most frequently performed and extravagantly admired Chinese composers in European new-music circles, and that must have definite prestige value back home.

Bartók and Shostakovich are often cited as the Western composers who have most influenced Guo's style, which also draws on indigenous Chinese vocal and instrumental techniques. It all came seamlessly together in the Lincoln Center Festival's presentation of his short chamber opera, The Night Banquet, a score that calls to mind George Crumb's feverish nightmare fantasies and washes of spooky instrumental color. Perhaps that's only appropriate for this unusual tale, based on a famous tenth-century Tang-dynasty scroll painting that depicts an upright statesman who deliberately tarnishes his own reputation in order to avoid serving a corrupt emperor. As a sly commentary on contemporary society, The Night Banquet perhaps makes its points almost too subtly for Western sensibilities, but it certainly does so with musical gestures of ear-catching clarity and confidence. By cleverly mixing ancient and modern motifs into the stage action, director Chen Shi-Zeng, who created the stunning Lincoln Center production of The Peony Pavilion in 1999, certainly gave the audience much to ponder. Best of all, Germany's crackerjack Ensemble Modern played the luminous score with extraordinary virtuosity.

It usually takes months, even years, to plan musical events like the one Riccardo Muti conducted at Avery Fisher Hall late last month. This one appeared as if by magic and with virtually no advance fanfare: a full orchestra, chorus, and soloists flown in overnight from Italy's Ravenna Festival to give a free concert in memory of the Twin Towers victims. Seventeen orchestras from eleven different European countries sent their musicians to play Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony under Muti's direction, and one wonders how much time they had to prepare the performance. If that weren't enough, the entire La Scala chorus came along to sing "Va Pensiero" from Verdi's Nabucco, not to mention six starry operatic personalities (Barbara Frittoli, Oriana Kurteshi, Marianna Kulikova, Giuseppe Sabbatini, Roberto Frontali, and Natale De Carolis) who supplied the brief solos in the choral finale of Rossini's William Tell.

Exactly how this grand and generous gesture was organized is probably a story in itself. Needless to say, the adrenaline was flowing, and the orchestra tore into the "Eroica" as if possessed by both the music and the occasion. Yes, there were the inevitable rough patches, surely due more to jet lag than to any unfamiliarity with the score, but there was also a commitment to the fierce spirit of the symphony that one seldom hears in more measured, coolly considered, carefully rehearsed interpretations. And to conclude with the sublime William Tell finale was an inspired stroke that I suspect would occur only to an Italian conductor like Muti, who has this glorious music in his bloodstream. Basically a swirling emotional crescendo built around a simple C-major chord, Rossini's sunburst apotheosis provided precisely the spiritual uplift this special concert required.

The Silver River
By Bright Sheng
The Night Banquet
By Guo Wenjing
Both operas presented by Lincoln Center Festival (closed).
The Road of Friendship: Ravenna/New York
Concert conducted by Riccardo Muti at Avery Fisher Hall.


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