The audience, having taken their seats in a large, traditional room in the American Society’s Upper East Side townhouse, waits in great anticipation for Vivian Fung’s Dreamscapes release. Andrew Cyr, the resourceful Grammy-nominated conductor and artistic director of Metropolis Ensemble, gestures for the pianist to commence the evening’s program by plucking the strings of the grand piano. Two slit-drum players from his orchestra send mystic and strangely far sounding rhythmic beats into the room from their place at the back; bird-like chirping overlaps the sounds of the drums as musicians within the audience begin playing several Vietnamese bird whistles. As Cyr directs the percussionists to steadily approach the stage area, the different voices start to unite.
Pianist Conor Hanick prepares the piano according to Fung’s notes with popsicle sticks, hairpins and paperclips, reinventing a famed practice initially championed by pianist/composer John Cage.
Even the audience gets to participate, making music with wineglasses, enjoying the fun of incorporating an “object trouvée.” Canadian-born composer Fung stands by, intently observing the audience’s reaction to her aurally and spatially captivating music, noting that the audience, while very perceptive, also looks flabbergasted at times. So begins the evening’s introduction into the creative world of the composer.
Following the performance, all of the soloists, the conductor, some members of the orchestra, and the two-time Grammy Award winning producer and sound engineer Tim Martyn, share their thoughts on the process of making this CD. Conor Hanick explains that Fung’s sound world is part of a unique genre, which brings a variety of original sound associations into contact with sounds inspired by Javanese and Balinese gamelan, and is produced with various means of instrumental adaption and in the piano’s case, an alteration of the piano’s timbre through the objects attached to its strings. Fung’s enthusiastic exploration of Indonesian gamelan has been a persistent stylistic element in the work of the young, Juilliard-trained composer, who was called “evocative” by the New York Times.
Fung’s latest CD was recently released by newly formed Naxos: Canadian Classics, which is the brainchild of Naxos’s Raymond Bisha. The disc includes three works ranging from Glimpses (2006), to the piano concerto Dreamscapes (2009). Divided into different vignettes, the Dreamscapes concerto, featuring Hanick, who is another impressive Juilliard alumn, expands on themes explored in Fung’s previous work; for example, the second vignette is based on “Kotekan” – the first movement of Glimpses. It is interesting to follow the depth and detail of Fung’s work through her different pieces, from her earliest featured composition Glimpses, to her very imaginative and organically condensed newer work.
The newest piece on the CD, introduced by virtuoso violinist Kristin Lee, is the Violin Concerto (2010/11). As Fung and Lee demonstrate, finding the perfect cadenza for the concerto was part of a fascinating process of working together as a team. “I really wanted to work with Kristin together on it,” Fung said, “and [I] did several drafts to come up with something that would fit her hand perfectly – not that she could not play anything!” Several versions of the cadenza were dismissed because they lacked fluidity, or presented too many extreme tonal distances, which produced undesirable dissonance, among other flaws. The final version, in G Sharp, contains many arpeggiated motions, which create a flow essential for Lee’s ample technique. The cadenza’s melodic voice-leading opportunities combine with many glissandi to mimic the motions of human song, which is a part of traditional gamelan performance, the derivation of Fung’s inspiration. Fung says that she based the concerto on Javanese gamelan, which is much more “sensuous and flowery” than Balinese gamelan. In addition to being inspired by gamelan music itself, Fung notes that she and Lee traveled to Bali together in 2010; the trip was a formative experience in their musical friendship, and yet another source of inspiration for the cadenza.
Fung feels a close connection to all those who contributed to the production of Dreamscapes, with whom she has maintained professional relationships as well as friendships. Fung chose her team wisely. The soloists on the Dreamscapes recording have virtuosic technique, and even more importantly, they possess a deep understanding of Fung’s concept. Andrew Cyr and Metropolis Ensemble’s mission statement stresses their desire to, “create innovative concert experiences dedicated to making classical music in its most contemporary form.“ Standing by that goal, the Metropolis Ensemble has been able to attract a substantial following, and commission and premiere works by a very interesting array of contemporary composers. Major support for Vivian Fung’s Dreamscapes was provided by Paul and Elisabeth DeRosa.