Notes and Editorial Reviews
Paul Chihara, cond; International Chief PO of Beijing
ALBANY 1446 (70:25)
The versatile and peripatetic Paul Chihara proved himself many years ago to be one of America’s leading compositional lights. A recent peregrination took him to China to conduct the premiere of his
an acrobatic, dance, and visual extravaganza featuring the Dalian Acrobatic Troupe of China. Yulan is the name of the sacred magnolia in China, an orchid-like flower, usually pink or white.
The composer (whom I interviewed back in 36:5) wrote me about one particularly beloved legend in China associated with the flower: “Buddha, as a young prince and warrior, during a civil war entered a destroyed town, and amidst the smoking ruins and bodies, he discovered a lovely flower, the yulan, still blossoming. This was for him a symbol of spiritual survival amidst human chaos and folly. He meditated, and composed a song on the spot, but this song has not survived.”
Over the centuries, many Chinese composers have written songs to the yulan, attempting to recreate this sublime moment, but none of these has really caught on in Chinese culture. Chihara found it an interesting challenge to write his own paean to the yulan, and it is first heard in incipient form in the second movement of the score, but doesn’t emerge in full flower, so to speak, until the ninth movement, where it appears as a melody on the erhu, reaching its apotheosis in the Finale (movement 12). In setting about to write a piece of Chinese music, Chihara (who is of Japanese, not Chinese, extraction) did not undertake any sort of crash course in Chinese music, but simply tried to incorporate the spirit and vitality of both traditional and popular Chinese music. In part, he accomplished this through the use of pentatonic tonality, soaring melodies with upward leaps of the interval of a sixth or more, brisk tempos, and the use of exotic orchestration, drawing especially upon plucked strings and percussion.
After four months of intense labor, the composer sent the score and recording on ahead to the troupe in China, and arrived a few months later to find everyone involved singing his music. He worked some months more there, arranging and revising, presumably to make all of the intricate choreography of the Dalian Acrobatic Troupe mesh with the music or vice versa. His greatest compliment came from the director of the troupe, who told him that the Song of Yulan was quintessentially Chinese.
So, what of the music? From the opening insistent ostinato in the bells and upper instruments, the listener realizes that this work is not quite like anything he’s heard previously. The driving rhythms of the opening movement occasionally yield to a very Chinese-sounding melody, but the rhythms incessantly intrude back into the texture. The effect is palpably exciting, and makes me dearly wish that I could see the acrobatics accompanied by this music. Throughout the score are electronic realizations created with the help of the composer’s assistant, Jeff Kryka. Chihara throughout maintains interest through a masterful combination of tonal and less tonal sonorities. The listener is kept on the edge of his seat trying to guess what this supremely inventive composer will come up with next.
is intended by its creators to “remind us of the fragility of our planet and the beauty we possess on earth.” Its movement titles are as evocative as its music, and are worth listing
: (1) Filaments of Galaxies—Before Time, (2) Winds of Fire, (3) The Flood, (4) The Freeze, (5) Photosynthesis, (6) Mating, (7) Metamorphosis, (8) Wild Destruction, (9) New Green, (10) Natural Shades of Complexion, (11) Flowering, (12) Flower of Love. These movements are divided into two acts of six scenes each. The whole is formed from a dizzying concatenation of styles: alluring melodies, primitive sounds, and percussive drama combine in a whirling, flurrying activity that engulfs the auditor in a mesmerizing kaleidoscopic frenzy.
Chihara draws all these amazing sounds out of the International Chief Philharmonic Orchestra of Beijing, a superb orchestra in every parameter. There is some really virtuoso writing here (listen to the sixth movement, for instance), and the orchestra is more than equal to the challenge. The sonics herein are of audiophile quality—this is certainly one of the best-sounding CDs I’ve heard in a long time. All in all, this Albany release is simply not to be foregone, and receives my highest recommendation. I
sincerely hope that the good folks at Albany will also issue a DVD version of this work, as the visual element here is definitely missed.
FANFARE: David DeBoor Canfield