Bright Sheng: The Phoenix

Gerard Schwarz

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Bright Sheng: The Phoenix Review

by James Manheim

Shanghai-born, Michigan-based composer Bright Sheng has found unusually flexible ways of embodying distinctively Chinese experiences in his work. He uses Chinese musical materials only subtly in the four orchestral works heard here, but his origins are unmistakable even for the listener with little prior exposure to his music. The earliest music here is also the most serious (and the least oriented toward tonality): H'un (Lacerations): In memoriam 1966--1976, composed in 1988, honors the victims of the Cultural Revolution in China, whose worst effects Sheng escaped thanks to his participation in a government-sponsored music group in Qinghai province. His parents, however, suffered greatly, and the work has depths of gloom to rival those of Shostakovich during the later phases of his career, and perhaps something of the same sense of the persistence of the individual. The first two pieces on the album, evoking the perils of the Silk Road and the vigor of Tibetan folk culture, respectively, are brighter and more oriented toward tonal centers but no less rigorous; the Tibetan "swing" of the second piece is a native dance movement with an associated rhythm that appears in the music, not a reference to jazz. The Phoenix, the most recent work on the program, outwardly has no connection to Chinese culture at all; the text, adapted by the composer, comes from a story by Hans Christian Andersen. But it was very much part of Sheng's experience: he read Andersen's tales in Chinese as a child, and, moreover, the phoenix legend has a counterpart in Chinese folklore (as well as that of many other lands). The soprano has a tough job here, with a vocal line featuring large leaps modeled on the syntax of partly biblical prose, all with a sequence of vivid pictorial images going on in the orchestra. Soprano Shana Blake Hill, who performed the work's premiere, is in command throughout, and the Seattle Symphony under Gerard Schwarz, one of Sheng's strongest supporters in the orchestral world, delivers sharp readings with a feel for the composer's delicate use of Asian American idioms. Not a populist, Sheng is neverthless among the few composers working in academic settings to have directly addressed himself to general concert audiences, and this collection makes a good place for those audiences to begin with his music.

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