SHENG: Spring Dreams for violin and orchestra of Chinese instruments (1999). 3 Fantasies (2006). Tibetan Dance (2001).
Cho-Liang Lin (violin); André-Michel Schub (piano); Erin Svaboda (clarinet); Bright Sheng (piano); Singapore Chinese Orchestra/Tsung Yeh
Naxos 8.570601 (DDD) TT: 48:00.

Talent. Bright Sheng is still somebody to watch. Bright Sheng, born in Shanghai, lived through the Cultural Revolution, during which time he was assigned to collect folk tunes and to arrange for folk ensembles. Rather than crush his creativity, it seems to have molded his artistic personality. Somehow he got to the United States, where he managed to study privately with Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood. I first encountered his name through his handsome orchestration of Bernstein's late masterpiece Arias and Barcarolles. Lenny liked it, too. Since then, I've sought out his work, which has mostly disappointed me. I found the music I heard not quite as boring as Tan Dun's, but that sets the bar too low.

I do seem to have a problem with Asian-Western crossover, although not the other way around. It seems to me that the spiritual aesthetic of most Asian music (excepting things like raga, gamelan, and Okinawan drumming) aims seeks to quiet the mind; that of Western music, to stimulate the mind. The goal of Buddhist meditation is nirvana, which holds out the reward of shutting out the noise of an illusory, painful world. On the other hand, the primary image of Western spirituality resembles the finale of Goethe's Faust, where the seeker after truth doesn't shut down, but keeps seeking. Even heaven requires effort. Too much a product of the West. I don't want to turn off. There's always more to find out. I hesitated even to listen to this CD, but, thankfully, I did and found that Sheng does write stimulating music.

In three movements ("Prelude," "Song," "Tibetan Dance"), Tibetan Dance -- for violin, clarinet, and piano -- partakes of both aesthetics. Its first two movements evoke the endless serenity of Chinese music, but in a very Western way. What distinguishes (and saves) Sheng from his crossover compatriots is his love of counterpoint, which he ties to a very Asian primacy of melody. It makes sense that if melody attracts a composer, he might be interested in how two or more melodies might sound together. The second movement sounds the most "authentically" Chinese. A good deal of it consists of violin and clarinet in unison. The piano remains completely silent. Eventually, however, the two strands diverge in a kind of Coplandian meditation. On the other hand, "Prelude" and the actual "Tibetan Dance" owe much to Bartók's treatment of folk music. The first movement would not have been out of place in Bartók's Contrasts (particularly with a gentle percussive effect on the violin) while the third reminds me strongly of Bartók's Hungarian rondos.

One can apply much of the above to the Three Fantasies for violin and piano -- "Dream Song," "Tibetan Air," and "Kazakhstan Love Song" -- except that Sheng handles the Bartókisms with considerably more assurance and freedom. Indeed, one hears a personal voice with something interesting to say.

However, the concerto Spring Dreams stands out in this program, particularly in regard to the strength of Sheng's original voice. This piece has gone through three versions: one for orchestra alone (1995), one for cello and Chinese orchestra commissioned by Yo-Yo Ma (1997), and this one for violin and Chinese orchestra, commissioned by Cho-Liang Lin (1999). One can easily understand why two virtuosos wanted to incorporate this into their repertory, the piece is that good.

The work is slightly misnamed, for it's not a purely Chinese orchestra. Chinese instruments are pitched mainly in the treble. Sheng reinforces (and in some cases provides) lower sonorities with Western cellos and basses, but with discretion. It results in a richer, less shrill (to my ears) sound. Nevertheless, the sound of it -- if you're not used to Chinese music -- will very likely bring you up short. The score consists of two movements, "Midnight Bells" (inspired by a classic Chinese poem) and "Spring Opera" (inspired by the suicide scene in the classic Chinese opera Farewell, My Concubine). You don't need to know either one of these for the work to move you. The first movement resembles more closely people's idea of Chinese music -- slow, pentatonic melodies dominant in the texture. A bunch of pentatonic themes runs the danger of the music homogenizing, of a stultifying sameness, but Sheng skillfully avoids the trap by focusing on different rhythms and simultaneously presenting his themes in different, clashing keys. The resulting acidity rescues this movement from becoming a snapshot from a cruise ship or an exercise in chinoiserie. This movement says serious things about a culture. I sometimes wonder what went through the Singapore musicians' minds when they first confronted the score, even though they probably know Western classical music as well as anybody. It's that fit between East and West that's so unusual.

The finale burns down the barn, and it lies closer to Western music. One can't even talk about melodies, the bedrock of Chinese music, since much of the time the instruments don't play definite pitches. Sheng brilliantly turns the Chinese orchestra into a large percussion section and even gets sounds that resemble electronically synthesized timbres. What saves it from mere gimmickry is that the rhythms are so compelling and sweep you along. After the concerto ended, I shouted, "Wow!" thus causing my wife to yelp at the surprise of it.

The musicians achieve excellence all around. Yeh and the Singapore Chinese Orchestra appealed to me the most, but violinist Lin reached a perfect balance of Eastern and Western performing styles. He has honed in on Sheng's aesthetic. Schub and Svaboda provide sensitive accompaniment, and of course Sheng knows how his Tibetan Dance should go. Fine sound. An exciting release from the bargain label Naxos.

S.G.S. (November 2009)