From Songs East and West, a Harmonic Divergence

04.11.08
Chanticleer
The New York Times

Chen Yi's "From the Path of Beauty" and Ligeti's "Idegen Foldon" use similar thinking to arrive at different places. Ms. Chen's piece is a seven-part song cycle for mixed chorus and four strings. It was commissioned by the all-male singing ensemble Chanticleer and the Shanghai Quartet, who performed it at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Temple of Dendur on Wednesday night.

The Ligeti songs were constrained by the cultural populism of Communist Hungary at the end of World War II. Like "From the Path of Beauty," they invent a folk music that may sound Hungarian or Chinese but is really made up. Ms. Chen is relentlessly theatrical, alternating between misty vocal lines and violently busy string-writing. Her singing parts can be quiet vocalises supporting the strings, or else shouts, sound effects and a nonverbal cross between scat singing and the Swingle Singers.

Ms. Chen wants her listeners to think of Chinese calligraphy and opera, but there are also visits to a simpler, popular modal melody. Her hard work showed up in the virtuoso demands made on everybody. Chanticleer's 13 singers were admirable.

The huge, echoing hall served "From the Path of Beauty" well. Sheer sound color is a major ingredient here. Plucked strings resounded like cannon shots, and if the audience heard some of this music once and then once again on the immediate rebound, the more the better. Ligeti's part songs, which included "Papaine" and "Magany," were quieter but infinitely more potent, with a magical spilling-over of crossing voices, at once harmonious and ambiguously at odds. Their beauty sticks in the mind.

The rest was Ravel: a choral transcription of "Soupir" from the "Trois Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé" and the ever lovely String Quartet in F. "Soupir" was interesting for its whistling accompaniments. The Shanghai players are very good but pushed Ravel hard. The Quartet, I confess, was a teenage obsession of mine; just having it around made me happy. I could argue about the Shanghai's fast tempos but prefer not to.