Bright Sheng "The Blazing Mirage"

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Bright Sheng "The Blazing Mirage"

Postby pianoman » Tue Nov 11, 2014 10:48 pm

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.
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