Red Silk Dance (1999)
Tibetan Swing (2002)
The Phoenix (2004)
H’un (Lacerations) In Memoriam: 1966-1976 (1988)
Shana Blake Hill, soprano; Bright Sheng, piano
Seattle Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz


The scintillating performance by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra under Gerard Schwarz, a longtime champion of contemporary music, of four works by Bright Sheng (b. Shanghai, 1955) show clearly why this composer is a great favorite among present-day musicians. He has a penchant for treating traditional instruments of the orchestra in non-traditional ways that today’s generation of young musicians find stimulating and challenging. And his rhythmic vocabulary will keep everyone (the audience included) on their toes.

Red Silk Dance is a good introduction to Sheng’s heady exploration of inter-cultural connections. We envision a caravan slowly wending along the Silk Road that was the ancient link between East and West. A percussion duet between piano and timpani recalls the sound of male Tibetan dancers stamping their feet. Sheng has the performers use hard wooden mallets for the drums, contrasted to accented parallel octaves in the piano, played by Sheng himself as a percussive instrument. A slow interlude has the pianist playing a central Asian flute-inspired melody against a backdrop of muted strings. The only melodious music in the piece, it is interrupted by a miasma of blaring brass. The piano responds with angular leaps and more percussive sounds, culminating in sweeping glissandi.

The title Tibetan Swing refers not to swingtime rhythm, much less an evocation of a pretty girl in a swing, but to the dances of Tibetan women in flowing costumes with long sleeves that brush the ground and swing into the air, accentuating the dance with their swirling patterns of motion. Sheng, a percussionist himself, gives a major role to the sounds of congas, bongos and a bass drum struck with the hand alone. The power of the music increases as more families of the full orchestra become engaged. The composer calls for flutter-tonguing in the brass to add excitement. At the climax, sensational glissandi in the trombones evoke the awesome tones of Tibetan temple horns. The string reintroduce the basic dance motif, and the music swells to a sweeping close.

The Phoenix, for soprano and orchestra, recounts the legend of the fabulous bird that rises from its own ashes. Sheng uses the version in the Tales of Hans Christian Andersen, which he had first encountered in Chinese translation as a child. The work was commissioned by the Seattle Symphony to celebrate its hundredth anniversary in 2004, the year that also marked the 200th birthday of the beloved Danish writer. Sheng chose his story well.

Taking his cue from the suggestion given by Andersen himself, he sees the legend of the Phoenix as a metaphor for the ever-renewing power of music itself to lift up and inspire people in all places and all times. The emotionally charged vocal part is one of the most challenging in the soprano’s repertoire, with its great leaps and chromatic writing. Shana Blake Hill handles her part with composure and assurance, qualities that are especially important given the large sweep and luminous phrasing required by such key words as “bloomed,” “resplendent,” “arise,” “perfume,” and “soar.” Several places in the text provide for instrumental interludes. A reference to the bright eyes of a Hindu girl invites a sitar-like melody accompanied by a string drone. Likewise, Arabia, birthplace of the Phoenix, is conjured up by an octatonic scale and flowing melismas in the woodwinds.

Like Shostakovich, Bright Sheng has been influenced by the tragic events of his time. For the Russian, it was the Stalinist era, in particular the purge trials and the siege of Leningrad, that brought forth stirring musical responses. For Sheng, it was the “Cultural Revolution” in China, a time of upheavals that became seared in the consciousness of the Chinese. “I was one of the millions who were the witnesses, victims, and survivors,” writes Sheng. The title H’un (Lacerations) is a Chinese word with many meanings (wounds, scars, marks, vestiges), all of which are relevant here. Consciously rejecting melodies that he considered “too beautiful” for the context, Sheng based much of his music on the small, dissonant interval of a half-step. The music is often angry, malevolent, expressing both rage and (in a striking passage in which the upper and lower strings play fortissimo at the extreme limits of their range, but muted) the stifling of dissent like a strangled cry.

All but unnoticed amid the dissonance, a brief scrap of melody in the clarinet, amounting to a full step, offers a ray of hope for solace and redemption through music. Composed in 1988 (shortly after Bright Sheng became an American citizen), H’un looks both backward and forward.

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