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Huang Ruo: Chamber Concerto Cycle

International Contemporary Ensemble/Huang Ruo, conductor

Naxos

This is a recording of four chamber concerti by the composer Huang Ruo, who is currently a DMA student at Juilliard. The works are: Chamber Concerto No. 1, “Yueh Fei,” Chamber Concerto No. 2, “The Lost Garden,” Chamber Concerto No. 3, “Divergence,” and Chamber Concerto No. 4, “Confluence.” I probably like the subtitles most of all. The music, competently performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble, struck me as a combination of Western and Eastern music, but more on the “chinoiserie” end of things. It also came across to me as accomplished music, certainly very commendable and advanced work for a graduate student, but following a safe course rather than striking out and finding new ground. After a few minutes I was genuinely uninterested. That perhaps reflects more my own taste and attention span (or lack thereof), but I felt there is more compelling music in the first five minutes of the average piece by Somei Satoh than there is in this entire album.

I hate dissing new music, especially when written by someone who is not fully established (although with a dedicated album on Naxos, Huang Ruo is certainly “not too shabby,” as Adam Sandler would say). But in all honesty, much of the music was something of a hybrid between Western and Eastern styles, without any real sense of what makes each unique and beautiful. It’s more of a mashup than anything else. A lot of different influences abound, which is fine (all of us ultimately betray our various influences in our works), but after listening to this album I have no sense of the composer Huang Ruo; rather, I have a sense of the synthesist Huang Ruo who melds together many disparate styles and influences. I suspect one of his influences had to have been George Crumb, and I had a distinct sense of “been there, done that” when I listened to the disc for the first time.
On a more positive note, I should mention that this is the first release of the International Contemporary Ensemble, which as I recall was a participant in the first Sequenza 21 concert back in November. Their performance is first-rate, and I should add that this is no mean feat, as the performers must engage in a lot of musical activity outside their usual instrumental roles (speaking, vocalizing, etc).

11 Responses to “huang ruo: chamber concerto cycle (2000-2002)”
  1. Eric Lin says:

    I don’t know about these works, but last night at Miller Theatre, Huang’s Cello Concerto “People Mountain People Sea” was premiered…and it was plain out awesome.

  2. […] A couple of weeks ago, David Toub reviewed for Sequenza21 the new Naxos recording of Huang Ruo’s Chamber Concerto Cycle, a set of pieces performed back in 2003 at the Miller Theatre here in New York.  For Toub, while the pieces demonstrate Huang’s skills as a “synthesist” who ”melds together many disparate styles and influences,” they do not give a sense of what Huang is trying to say as a composer. […]

  3. Mark says:

    This review gives lots to think about; thanks for giving some attention to this disc and writing an even-handed review. I’ve posted a response on The Naxos Blog:
    http://www.sequenza21.com/naxos

    One of the things I was curious about was just how to make the distinction between a synthesist and a composer. Can’t the act of combining be the message in itself?

    I e-mailed Huang and invited him to comment; hopefully, he’ll take me up on it.

  4. […] A couple of weeks ago, David Toub reviewed for Sequenza21 the new Naxos recording of Huang Ruo’s Chamber Concerto Cycle, a set of pieces performed back in 2003 at the Miller Theatre here in New York.  For Toub, while the pieces demonstrate Huang’s skills as a “synthesist” who ”melds together many disparate styles and influences,” they do not give a sense of what Huang is trying to say as a composer. […]

  5. Brian Katz says:

    I also went to the Pocket concerto concert up at Miller Theatre. I need to say that Huang’s cello concerto People Mountain People Sea was one of the best new works I have heard in years. After I read Mr. Taub’s review, I picked up Huang’s Naxos CD from the Barnes & Noble and listened to the entire disc. I totally disagree with Mr. Taub’s observation. I would like to ask how much he knows about Huang’s music, style, or Eastern music, then came up with the conclusion “synthesist”? In my opinion, Huang is totally an original composer with great imagination and refined skills.

  6. david toub says:

    I totally disagree with Mr. Taub’s observation. I would like to ask how much he knows about Huang’s music, style, or Eastern music, then came up with the conclusion “synthesist”?

    Not sure who Mr. Taub is (?Robert Taub), but as the author of the review, I can say that you’re certainly welcome to disagree with my observation. We’re still in a country with free speech…well, kinda. If you read the review again, I think you’ll get it that I was disappointed that I had to say something negative about the album, and certainly tried hard to include some positives. But I have to be honest, and in all honesty, I don’t like the music. We can’t always review stuff we like, and if we did, life would be boring. As far as how much I know about Eastern music: I’m not sure that’s relevant, but let’s just say I like to think I’m reasonably familiar with it, albeit no “expert.” But I stand by the “synthesist” comment, which is consistent with other things I’ve read about the composer after I wrote my review.

    We all incorporate many different influences. But in the end, I’d like to think we still find our own voices. Ives incorporated tons of different influences, as did Feldman, Cowell, Partch, yadda yadda yadda. But all of these clearly had their own voice. I just didn’t feel that way about Huang Ruo’s music, and if that’s how his music made me feel, that’s how it is. Many people don’t get my own music, family members included, and they’re certainly entitled to their feelings, as are you. And, by extension, so am I.

  7. Sir Incises says:

    Cool stuffs on the cd — I love it!

  8. Steve Layton says:

    I’ve listened, and have to say I like the pieces pretty well. No, they’re not Lachenmann; aside from a few percussive effects, extreme ranges and glissandos, most of the style is pre-1950 (though when he gets riffing in some of the fast sections, there’s a bit of a permutation/accent thing going on that owes a tiny bit to “Einstein”-era Glass, and the pseudo-heterophony he likes so much brings Messiaen and even Vivier to mind). But it’s got a good sharp energy, a drive that isn’t afraid to throw a lot of things your way and trust you to stay caught up, and a whole lot of color.

    I found it interesting that he’s doing real honest-to-goodness POLYTONALITY, a la that great, acidic 1920s-Berlin style. (Everybody might think it was done to death 75 years ago, but I think it’s actually pretty rare, and even rarer pursued with such a sharp ear.) He’s very good at weaving these long, elaborate melodies through a thicket of heterogenous textures, too. The “chinoiserie” pops up now and then; some of the gilsses, a bit of pentatonic melody, the Beijing Opera cymbal… but nothing too hokey. Whether he’s found his own “voice” or not… well, seems to me he’s found a good part of it.

    I do think that the separate concertos are a bit too “compact”, in that current concert-fashion of “give us a work between 10 and 12 minutes”. Some of these are enough of a piece to string a number of them into a single, larger work. And there are a couple moments where the movements just “give up” in some lyrical or dramatic gesture — that I’m sure was irresistable — when some part of me can hear that everything is just aching to push on and kick into another gear.

  9. Mark Berry says:

    Thanks, belatedly, for the comments here, Steve. I’m glad to see this recording has gotten so much attention.

  10. […] A couple of weeks ago, David Toub reviewed for Sequenza21 the new Naxos recording of Huang Ruo’s Chamber Concerto Cycle, a set of pieces performed back in 2003 at the Miller Theatre here in New York. For Toub, while the pieces demonstrate Huang’s skills as a “synthesist” who “melds together many disparate styles and influences,” they do not give a sense of what Huang is trying to say as a composer. […]

  11. […] A couple of weeks ago, David Toub reviewed for Sequenza21 the new Naxos recording of Huang Ruo’s Chamber Concerto Cycle, a set of pieces performed back in 2003 at the Miller Theatre here in New York. For Toub, while the pieces demonstrate Huang’s skills as a “synthesist” who “melds together many disparate styles and influences,” they do not give a sense of what Huang is trying to say as a composer. […]

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