Friday, September 08, 2006

Bright Sheng's A Night at the Chinese Opera

What an exciting event this is: a world premiere of a fantastic new violin piece at the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis that is available for everyone to hear on line. Last night we got to hear the piece twice, and it was played with two vastly different interpretations.

Saeka Matsuyama, a Japanese violinist played it with rhythmic spring that immediately evoked images for me of the delicate and "over the top" stylized characters of the Chinese opera. Her performance was engaging and charming--dramatic and strong, but never "dramatic" in an overtly Western way. I particularly liked her range of sounds (that sounded like Chinese instruments), and her liberal use of slides.

Daniela Shtereva, a violinist from Bulgaria and her pianist played the piece in a far more aggressive way that sounded more like Western drama. Frankly it sounded like a wild night at a Bulgarian opera, which is highly appropriate because her dramatic, musical, and cultural experience comes from a tradition that is in a different world, both geographically and culturally, from the world of Chinese opera.

I'm really looking forward to today's performances.

This experience seems to be to be a lot like giving a bunch of visual artists the same set of objects to paint, using the same colors and the same materials, and observing that resulting paintings might have far more to do with the individuality of the artists than the objects themselves. This is a remarkable chance to witness the blurring of the lines between a composer and a collaborating performer, particularly since in this case it is the performer who is being judged.

There is also the cultural aspect. Bright Sheng grew up in Shanghai, but he was schooled in the Western musical tradition. Still, his music reflects who he is, and much of it is his music, though it uses Western instruments and techniques, consists of musical response to Chinese culture. He is such a fine composer because he writes music that reflects who he is as a musician as well as his cultural heritage. It is music that really works, music superbly written for the violin, and music that speaks in a way that goes far beyond the limits of spoken (or sung) language.

We are at an odd musical crossroads. There is no doubt for anyone listening to this competition that some of the most sublime musicians and finest violinists, playing music that we used to say belonged to a Western tradition, are from Asian countries or have one or two parents who come from countries in Asia. These musicians have, until now, been evaulated on their performances of music that has always been part of the tradition of the West.

All of a sudden things have changed, and we have the unique chance to watch and listen to it change before our very eyes and ears. All of a sudden 16 fantastic violinists who have been steeped in the traditions of the music Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Paganini, and Ysaye, are stepping out of their musical skins and taking a huge leap out of that tradition into a world of musical wonder that most of them have never explored before: Chinese Opera. Bright Sheng is giving it to them on a silver platter, and they are giving it to the whole world for everyone to hear as it happens, in streaming audio.

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