Ode to Eternal Pine

Network for New Music’s season-long Asian theme continues with a program of music by Chinese composers on Sunday, February 13 at 7:30. The concert will be at the Settlement Music School, 416 Queen St. in Philadelphia. I will be involved, leading a pre-concert chat with composers Shih-Hui Chen and Chou Wen-Chung at 6:30, and recording a podcast discussion with Wen-Chung earlier in the day.

The program features a nice multi-generational mix – Wen-Chung, one of my teachers from my Columbia University doctoral studies, is the elder statesman of the group at 87, while the youngest is Huang Ruo, born in 1976, and Shih-Hui Chen and Bright Cheng are from a middle generation. Wen-Chung is a particularly intriguing figure. The kind of cross-cultural mix where Asian and Euro-American practices mingle that we associate with composers like Bright Cheng, Tan Dun and Chen Yi was actually pioneered by Wen-Chung. In fact, it was he who brought those younger Chinese composers to the United States to study at Columbia through his work with the US-China Arts Exchange. (If you know the film “From Mao to Mozart“, you know something about Wen-Chung’s efforts.) In addition to his work for cultural exchange, Wen-Chung is especially well known as the student, assistant, and musical executor of Edgard Varèse. In fact, the Varese connection has sometimes overshadowed Wen-Chung’s own compositional work, so it is nice to see his music getting some attention. Ode to Eternal Pine, the piece by Wen-Chung that Network will play, was commissioned by the New York New Music Ensemble, and is based on an earlier work, Eternal Pine,  that was composed for  an ensemble of Korean instruments. Ode to Eternal Pine is scored for Western instruments, but the playing style and technique is thoroughly influenced by East Asia musical sensibility, with an emphasis on fluidly shaped gestures with respect to pitch and rhythm. You can find score and recording excerpts of the piece at Wen-Chung’s exceptionally rich website.

I’ll be interested to get to know the music of Shih-Hui Chen. The piece she has composed for this concert is inspired by the aboriginal people of Taiwan. It is intriguing to read what she writes in her program note, that the aboriginals of Taiwan “encountered Dutch Christian missionaries in the early 17th century before the arrival of the Han people from China.”  Who would have thought that Christianity would occupy, as she writes, “a more prominent place [for the aboriginals] than traditional mythologies.” Her new piece is called Our Names and sets a text by a blind aboriginal poet, a plea for justice and respect for aboriginal people and their culture.

Four young musicians from the Philadelphia Sinfonia, directed by Gary White, will perform Fantasia, the first movement of Shih-Hui Chen’s string quartet Mei-Hua at 7:15 before the Network concert performance begins at 7:30 PM. Go here for video about this project.

(photo above: Chou Wen-Chung)

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