One of the many pleasures of the brief (but free) all-Chinary Ung concert given earlier today at Juilliard by the Da Capo Chamber Players was the absence of any blathering about “East meets West.” I’m sure part of the reason for the absence was a simple lack of time for blathering altogether: the performance was given in conjunction with the school’s Composers’ Forum which apparently keeps to a pretty tight schedule. But whatever the reason, such cross-cultural discussion would have been out of place. Ung’s music does not sound eclectic; it does not sound as if it had some agenda of cross-cultural reconciliation. His music sounds like music written by someone from a different musical culture who has found a way to manifest that culture with Western instruments. And the sound of Western instruments in such gifted Eastern hands is disarming, refreshing, and exciting. Ung’s command of extended techniques and his sensitivity to blending instruments must make him (with Tristan Murail) one of the foremost masters of tone color around. Ung’s ability to draw consonant intervals out from dense currents of heterophony, and then to place them back gently into the stream, was amply displayed in “Oracle,” “Luminous Spirals,” “Spiral VI,” and “… Still Life After Death,” the pieces on tonight’s program. While I thought most of the pieces were a little too long, the beautifully tapered endings did not lack impact, and the extra time to savor the sonorities pouring forth from the stage was welcome. A highlight was the concluding vocal duet from “Still Life” between Lucy Shelton and the violinist (David Bowlin). Ung calls upon the violinist to stand and lowly chant an old Buddhist text while the singer whispers and stammers away into another life. This could have been nonsense, but instead it was the most moving music I’ve heard in months.
P.S. The Da Capos are currently recording a CD of Ung’s works. The label? Bridge. (Of course.)