Bright Sheng Thread

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pianoman
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Bright Sheng Thread

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This is a 2014 disc released by Naxos of three works composed by Bright Sheng. Somewhat surprisingly to me, Sheng has a fairly large catalogue of works that are readily available. This disc is the 6th album of Sheng's music released on the Naxos label alone.

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This album is, quite probably, the most Asian CD I have ever owned. It consists of three orchestral works composed by a Chinese composer, performed by the Hong Kong Philharmonic with Sheng conducting, and featuring five soloists who are all Asian, two of whom play traditional Chinese instruments, the sheng (mouth organ, no relation) and the pipa (plucked lute instrument). The soloists are: Hui Li, pipa; Tong Wu, sheng; Trey Lee, cello; Sa Chen, piano; and Pius Cheung, marimba.

The fist work, Song of Dance and Tears, was written in 2003 and revised in 2013. In the liner notes, Sheng states that this work is inspired by the folk music he heard while visiting the areas of the Silk Road "within the contemporary Chinese border." This is apparently a collection of separate "songs," yet there is only one track division. Much of this work sounds vaguely latin. The pipa is plucked in a tremelo style like Spanish guitar. The piano is used largely percussively or ornamentally. The sheng sounds a little like an accordian.

The second work is my favorite on this disc. It is essentially a concerto for marimba :lol:, and is performed by my new favorite Asian classical musician Pius Cheung. Shockingly, it was actually commissioned by the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra in 2004 for a different marimba player named Evelyn Glennie. The marimba wanders wistfully and cross-currently over a soft, reflective orchestra, with just a hint of sadness, then builds gradually to a semi-frantic allegro non troppo as the orchestra begins more and more to assume the role of sound effects generator. This strange brew simmers down before boiling over and you get a recapitulation of the first texture.

The third piece lends its name to the album, the Blazing Mirage. In the liner notes, Sheng writes that it is inspired by a site called the Dunhuang Caves that date back to the 4th century. The caves apparently contain the greatest collection of Buddhist art and culture ever discovered, as well as documents and frescos that relate to other religions such as Taoism, Nestorianism, and even Judaism, in several languages. They also contained music written in a lost but reconstructed system of notation. The "Blazing Mirage" comes from the legend of the inspiration for the first cave. A buddhist monk had a vision of "a thousand Buddhas glittering in golden lights."

The Blazing Mirage is essentially a one-movement cello concerto. It begins with a long solo cello "recitative," almost three minutes before the orchestra plays a single note. This work conveys a feeling of mystery, portent, antiquity. Of the three pieces on this disc, it is probably the most serious and the most "refined" in the sense of appealing to contemporary musical tastes. It does not build to a climax the way that you might expect from a Western composer, but is instead broad, inconclusive, laterally-conceived. The cellist here, Trey Lee, is actually quite good. His playing stands out on this disc.

The only comment I want to add here is that Sheng is working in a long contemporary tradition of appending stories and texts to a work. This is almost de rigueur these days, but it brings up an issue I have with Asian composers that have been accepted and allowed to create in the West. In its essence, music is sound organized into patterns. Ultimately, the inspiration or textual justification for a piece of music should not take the place of the music itself. The work must compel musically, not politically or theoretically. If Asians are ever going to create their own musical traditions, Asian composers must one day stake a claim to organized sound in the abstract.

pianoman
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Re: Bright Sheng "The Blazing Mirage"

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I'm making a deliberate decision to spend more time in the "composers" section of this website, despite my screen name. Here is an article about Sheng that appeared last year in an arts and culture magazine in Oregon. Half biography and interview, half promotion for works being performed. Around 2016, Sheng produced an opera version of the 18th century Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber, with Asian-American playwright David Henry Hwang co-writing the libretto. This website has about ten minutes of excerpts from the opera:
https://sfopera.com/1617-season/201617- ... o-gallery/

Article is here (a few good links to some audio, including the work for marimba and orchestra reviewed above): https://www.orartswatch.org/bright-shen ... -emissary/

Excerpts:
Bright Sheng interview: cross-cultural emissary
The Shanghai-born American composer, whose music is featured at Chamber Music Northwest this weekend, explores and extends Chinese music traditions
JULY 20, 2018

by ALICE HARDESTY

Bright Sheng is a pianist, conductor, and composer of music in various genres, including opera, orchestral, and chamber music. He’s also a teacher and musicologist, having studied both Eastern and Western music extensively. His resume includes heavy-duty recognition, such as the Guggenheim Fellowship and the MacArthur “Genius” award.

This weekend, as part of its Behind the Cultural Revolution series, Chamber Music Northwest presents two performances of Sheng’s opera The Silver River and other compositions. I spoke to him last week.

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Bright Sheng

Born in Shanghai, Sheng was nearly ready for music school when the Red Guard took away his piano and sent him to the the province of Qinghai in Eastern Tibet. Fortunately, the seven years he spent there were not wasted. His hosts found out that he could play the piano (the only piano there), and he became the local musician and entertainer. With no teacher or books, he taught himself music theory and made an intensive study of the local folk music. After the Cultural Revolution, he made up for lost time. He got a B.A. at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, left for the U.S. and earned a doctorate in composition from Columbia University where one of his mentors was Leonard Bernstein.

The name, “Sheng,” means “grand,” and “Bright” is the actual translation of his Chinese name, “Liang.” He explained with a chuckle, “I didn’t really want a Western name, so I chose ‘Bright’ and I think it helped with my career because it sticks.” He’s lived up to his name.
Sheng believes that the next hundred years will bring much more cross-cultural music, that the lines between musical genres will be even more blurred than they are now, and that things will merge naturally. “I have a theory that I didn’t get a chance to practice myself, but ideally, all races should just mix, and that will erase the racial and political tensions. The U.S. is the foremost country doing that. You know, interracial marriage is not a big deal anymore. But it still is other places.

Sheng acknowledges that a side-effect of this merging will be the loss of some of the unique elements of certain cultures. He talked about how with the influx into Hong Kong of people from the mainland, the demand for food has changed and the authentic Cantonese cuisine has started to blend, as has the Cantonese language. But now you can get authentic Cantonese food in Beijing! It’s all a matter of demand. It takes an effort to preserve valued elements of the old cultures. It is an effort that engaged him as a teenager during the Cultural Revolution, and engages him still as a musicologist.
As he did in Silver River, Bright Sheng selected the well known playwright David Henry Hwang as his co-librettist for his full length opera, The Dream of the Red Chamber. The opera premiered in San Francisco in 2016 to public and critical acclaim. The opera is based on what he called the most beloved novel in Chinese history, written by Cao Xueqin in the mid 18th Century during the Qing Dynasty. Scholars in China, known as Redologists, can spend their whole lives studying this book.

Sheng recounted how these scholars scrutinized the performances he conducted in China. “A whole fleet of Redologists came without letting me know. They followed us on our tour in China. Then they said they wanted to have a public symposium on the opera and the Dream of the Red Chamber. It was the five major media, TV and all that, and I was really nervous!”

Sheng said that in the end, they all agreed that the opera was okay. They acknowledged that Sheng and Hwang and changed it a bit, but it was a good story and the spirit of the novel was still there. “Most important,” said Sheng, “they were moved. One high-up scholar said in the beginning he was analyzing it, but by a quarter of the way into it, he was totally absorbed by the story and the music. He said, ‘I didn’t care. By the end I was touched.’”

pianoman
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Re: Bright Sheng Thread

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The woke mob has come for Bright Sheng. A few weeks ago, Sheng screened a 1965 version of Othello with Laurence Olivier in blackface and now some of his charges at the University of Michigan want him fired. Sheng is the last person one might think would become the target of such tired antics, but of course reason was never the strong point of American activism:

Original report, with a copy of the letter demanding Sheng's termination: https://slippedisc.com/2021/10/michigan ... ace-video/

https://slippedisc.com/2021/10/its-the- ... cancelled/
It’s the students who should be fired, not the professor they want cancelled

Norman Lebrecht

October 03, 2021

Following on from Friday’s exclusive report on the furore at the University of Michigan, where a mob of students want to have composer Bright Sheng sacked for showing a blackface Othello video, here’s a salient reader’s comment:

The author Sammy Sussmann, for all his protestations of being “shocked,” “horrified,” and “saddened” by the showing of the video and the admin’s response, makes clear his real agenda midway through the “article.” As is always the case with individuals who wish to use incidents like this to destroy careers, there’s some axe grinding going
on that has nothing to do with the matter at hand.

After rehearsing the alleged shock and anguish caused by seeing Olivier’s version of Othello, the writer gets to the crux of his piece: Sheng is apparently rude to his colleagues and students, having the temerity to watching videos on his phone during meetings. Worst of all, he left the writer’s UM entrance interview mid-stream, an unforgivable sin. How dare he have tenure, preventing Sammy Sussman from exacting his revenge?

It is becoming more and more nauseating to witness the temper tantrums of these mini-Madame Defarges, these hypocrites who claim to have a higher purpose in mind (the purification of academia and the world achieved by driving out the alleged racists, sexists, homophobes, and transphobes), but who in reality just want to hurt those who have bruised their fragile egos, or worse, harm people who think differently than them.

I find Olivier’s performance in “Othello” to be cartoonish; it’s certainly his weakest Shakespearian performance on film. Would I show it to a class? No, because it’s a rotten rendition of a role that has been done much better by others. Does Sheng have a right to show it to his classes if he thinks it’s a good performance that demonstrates his
points when discussing the Shakespeare? According to what is now apparently an antiquated notion of free inquiry in a university setting, yes, he does. If the students don’t like it, they can drop the class, or write their thoughts on Sheng’s teacher evaluations.

If Sammy Sussman doesn’t like the fact that tenure exists, then he should attend a school like Liberty University or Bob Jones University, neither of which offer faculty any protection from arbitrary firing. If he and his ilk can’t see that they are joining hands with the extremists on the other side of the political divide, then they deserve what they will eventually get: the total destruction of the university system at the hands of left and right-wing fanatics.

pianoman
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Re: Bright Sheng Thread

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. . . and the mob is thrown a scrap of meat to chew on. Sheng was removed from teaching his freshman music composition class but will remain a member of the faculty.

As bizarre as this story already is, the most interesting article on this event comes from a socialist website that I have never heard of or knew existed. Not only do they denounce the campaign against Sheng, they actually do a fairly thorough analysis of the 1965 Olivier production of Othello and argue that it is actually anti-racist. Agree or not, there is a socialist in Ann Arbor who has watched a lot of Shakespeare:

https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2021/1 ... 1-o11.html
Oppose the right-wing, racialist attack on composer Bright Sheng at University of Michigan

International Youth and Students for Social Equality at the University of Michigan

The International Youth and Students for Social Equality (IYSSE) at the University of Michigan denounces the racialist smear campaign against renowned composer, conductor and pianist Bright Sheng. The claim by a group of students and faculty that he committed a “racist act” by screening a film version of Othello with Laurence Olivier is as badly informed as it is false. All serious and democratic-minded students should refuse to be intimidated and come to Sheng’s defense.

On Friday, David Gier, the dean of the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance (SMTD), announced that Sheng would stop teaching his undergraduate music composition course this semester but remain on faculty. The decision came a month after Sheng screened for the class the 1965 film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Othello, directed by longtime theater and television personality Stuart Burge and featuring the great Shakespearean actor Laurence Olivier playing Othello with black make-up.

Sheng, the Chinese-born Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor of Composition, is a world-class composer, who has been teaching at the University of Michigan since 1995. He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and was given a MacArthur “genius” fellowship in 2001. The Foundation described him as “an innovative composer whose skillful orchestrations bridge East and West, lyrical and dissonant styles, and historical and contemporary themes to create compositions that resonate with audiences around the world.”

The “crime” for which Sheng has been forced out of teaching the class has only been made possible by the whipping up of racialist frenzy on the university campuses and in the media. No honest or fair-minded individual could find anything remotely offensive about Olivier’s performance or the film as a whole.

Sheng was “turned in,” according to the Michigan Daily, by one of his freshman students, Olivia Cook, who took note that Olivier was playing Othello in black make-up. “I was stunned,” Cook said. “In such a school that preaches diversity and making sure that they understand the history of POC (people of color) in America, I was shocked that (Sheng) would show something like this in something that’s supposed to be a safe space.”

Cook, who evidently knows nothing about the play, its history, or Olivier’s career and intentions in his 1965 performance, has thus far been fully supported by the university in the baseless claim that Sheng’s showing of the film and the film itself were “racist.”

After the September 10 class and the subsequent manipulated uproar, Sheng issued an apology to the students and canceled a planned Othello project for the course. According to the report, SMTD Dean Gier and several faculty members rushed to accept the claim that Sheng’s showing of the film was a “racist act.”

In a statement to the Michigan Daily, composition Professor Evan Chambers—who is replacing Sheng in the course—wrote, “To show the film now, especially without substantial framing, content advisory and a focus on its inherent racism is in itself a racist act, regardless of the professor’s intentions.” Chambers presents absolutely no evidence to support such an outrageous claim. The public is apparently simply expected to take his word for it. Gier reported the “incident” to the university’s Office of Equity, Civil Rights, and Title IX.

Sheng then issued a formal department-wide apology on September 16. The letter conveyed his opposition to racism and pointed to his many collaborations with artists of different races, genders and ethnicities to demonstrate that he “never considered myself discriminative in any way.”

The formal apology was then seized upon by a group of SMTD graduate and undergraduate students and several faculty members, as supposedly “inflammatory” for “implying” that Sheng was “responsible” for the “success” of the artists noted in his letter. The collective issued this denunciation in a letter to the dean, demanding that Sheng be removed from his position for the rest of the semester, because he had created a “harmful environment.”

After the open letter was issued last week, however, Sheng removed himself from instructing the course at Gier’s urging.

The whole incident is foul and shameful. For all the hand-wringing about students “needing context” and “trigger-warnings” about the play, there is virtually no discussion of the actual work or film adaptation.

Othello, likely first performed in 1603, is one of the masterworks of the English-language theatrical canon. The title character is a Moorish general in the Venetian army who has secretly married Desdemona, the daughter of a leading senator, Brabantio. The latter first accuses Othello of using magic and witchcraft to carry off his daughter, until Desdemona appears and reveals her great love for her new husband. Iago, an ensign in the same military, hates Othello and plots successfully to make him jealous of his bride. The stoic general of the first half of the play gradually succumbs to Iago’s maneuvers in the second half, and the tragedy culminates in Othello’s murder of Desdemona in a fit of blind, jealous rage. Othello is a deeply sympathetic, tragic figure, undone by the Machiavellian Iago.

The play has been performed countless times over four centuries in every corner of the globe and adapted in many forms, including opera, most notably by Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi in 1887.

There are several film versions, including a legendary 1951 effort directed by and starring Orson Welles (with Irish actor Micheál MacLiammóir as Iago), a 1981 version with Anthony Hopkins (Othello) and Bob Hoskins (Iago)—directed by Jonathan Miller—and a 1995 adaptation (Oliver Parker), featuring Laurence Fishburne as Othello and Kenneth Branagh as Iago.

The 1965 Burge-Olivier version is a faithful and important interpretation. Though the Michigan Daily reported that the film was “controversial at the time,” it was in fact strongly praised in many quarters. All the lead actors in the film were nominated for Academy Awards, including Frank Finlay (Iago), Maggie Smith (Desdemona), Joyce Redman (Emilia) and Olivier.

Othello, “the Moor of Venice,” is commonly understood to be of North African origin, from the region of present-day Morocco. It was highly uncommon for Moors to be featured in plays of the time (Shakespeare included the villainous Aaron the Moor in his Titus Andronicus), and numerous critics contend that Shakespeare consciously introduced race as one of the sources of tension in the play, most obviously between Desdemona’s father and Othello, as well as one of the motives driving Iago.

The Soviet critic Aleksandr Smirnov made a strong case that Shakespeare demonstrates his humanism in Othello, writing that “Desdemona loves Othello despite his race and color. In their tragic passion, the racial problem as such does not exist, nor does it influence the Doge’s [the Venetian ruler] attitude towards Othello. Shakespeare solves the race problem in a more radical fashion than in The Merchant of Venice. In the latter, only one monologue, which is not even an integral part of the play, treats the problem whereas in Othello, the theme is treated in full. Othello is a thorough representative of the new age.”

The denunciation of Olivier’s performance, which he had previously given on the British stage, is particularly reactionary in that the actor was attempting to take on the timid, semi-racist approaches to the Othello character that had prevailed for a century and a half.

In representing Othello as black, as an African, Olivier was rebuffing various commentators appalled at the thought of the white maiden Desdemona falling head over heels in love with a black man. As Elise Marks commented in a 2001 essay, “Olivier was one of the first light-skinned actors to play Othello in black makeup since 1814. … In his autobiography, Olivier boasts that his black Othello was more genuine, more daring, more forceful than the ‘pale’—he might almost have said ‘diluted’—Othellos of his immediate predecessors.” Indeed, Olivier goes on to explain in that memoir that the dominant “coffee-colored compromise” had arisen “out of some feeling that the Moor could not be thought a truly noble Moor if he was too black and in too great contrast to the noble whites: a shocking case of pure snobbery.”

Laura Reitz-Wilson, in “Race and Othello on Film,” points out that the “1965 Othello is more revolutionary than the previous two [versions], bringing the issue of race to the forefront. Laurence Olivier plays a very black Othello. Most of the racial language in the play is included. Even small references, those of Emilia and Desdemona, are not cut. Othello’s references to his race are kept as well and are interpreted, by Olivier, as Shakespeare intended them.”

Any suggestion that there is a hint of racism about Olivier’s performance is preposterous. The actor takes pains to bestow his character with the greatest possible dignity and humanity. The Michigan Daily wrote that in a letter sent to the Daily Sheng explained “that the original intent was to show how the opera composer Giuseppe Verdi had adapted Shakespeare’s play into an opera. Since cross-casting was frequent in opera, he did not think Laurence Olivier’s performance was ‘intended to be the same as the minstrel performances which did degrade African Americans.’”

Moreover, whether it is fully intended or not, Olivier is also paying tribute to the performances of the great African American actor and singer and Communist Party supporter Paul Robeson, who played Othello on numerous occasions. In a 1956 interview, Robeson described Othello as “a black man in a white society,” which goes some distance toward explaining the character’s desperate reactions to Iago’s plotting, which preys on his isolation and vulnerabilities.

In his interview, Robeson refers approvingly to the writings of British critic A.C. Bradley, who strongly argued that Shakespeare “imagined Othello as a black man” and attacked the “horror of most American critics … at the idea of a black Othello.”

The International Youth and Students for Social Equality unequivocally condemns the campaign against Sheng, which has absolutely nothing to do with left-wing or progressive politics. Those students crying about “safe spaces” and a “harmful environment” created by the showing of Othello should grow up and actually learn something. That is what a university education is supposed to be about.

The IYSSE calls on all students and faculty concerned by what has been done to speak out against it. The campaign of intimidation against any critique of the noxious framework of racialist and identity politics must be rejected and opposed.

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