Evocations of China, Rural, Romantic and Aquatic

11.06.09
Colin Currie
The New York Times

By Vivien Schweitzer

In a distinctive blend of East and West, Tan Dun likes to superimpose unusual instruments and techniques on a Western orchestra. Thus, for example, his “Water Concerto (In Memory of Toru Takemitsu),” which David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra presented at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday as part of Carnegie’s festival Ancient Paths, Modern Voices, celebrating Chinese culture.

Mr. Tan’s concerto, given its premiere by Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic in 1999, was inspired by memories of washing clothes and vegetables in a river in his grandmother’s village in China. As the percussionist Colin Currie, the soloist in the work, walked down the aisle playing a waterphone (an instrument with a pipe full of water surrounded by spikes of varying lengths, stroked with a bow), and two of the orchestra’s percussionists played waterphones onstage, the hall was filled with haunting ambient sounds. Mr. Currie then stood before two large bowls of water onstage, immersing various objects and striking them while they were submerged to produce eerie sounds. At other times, he used his hands to splash and scoop up water.

The overall effect was like listening to someone splashing in the bath. Other weird timbres evoked the moans of a wounded animal. Though not a particularly affecting piece, the audience seemed to approve, applauding heartily at its conclusion.

Bright Sheng, who, like Mr. Tan and most of his composer colleagues now living in the United States, was sent to rural areas during the Cultural Revolution. Though musicians were deprived of a formal education, they were often exposed to local folk music traditions, as can be heard in Mr. Sheng’s “Colors of Crimson,” also performed on Wednesday.

Mr. Sheng describes this theatrical work, which uses thematic material from a love song he wrote as an adolescent, as “a fantasy for solo marimba and orchestra.” Mr. Currie played it with aplomb.

Also on the lineup were two colorful scores influenced by China: Stravinsky’s “Chant du Rossignol” (“Song of the Nightingale”) and Bartok’s “Miraculous Mandarin” Suite.

Stravinsky extracted his symphonic poem from the two final acts of his chamber opera based on “The Nightingale,” by Hans Christian Andersen. Stravinsky completed the first act in 1909 but didn’t work on the second and third until 1913, after his compositional style had evolved. Mr. Robertson led a lithe performance of the evocative work, with fine playing from the woodwinds.

The concert concluded with a rousing rendition of the suite from Bartok’s pantomime-ballet “The Miraculous Mandarin.” In its macabre plot, a woman lures a Mandarin into her lair so that thieves can rob him. After miraculously surviving their attacks, he perishes when the woman finally kisses him. Mr. Robertson’s reading vividly illuminated the pounding rhythms, angular lines and pungent harmonies with an appropriate ferocity of attack.