Tianshu Wang

The Piano in China

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The grandly titled The Piano in China: Development & Expression of the Chinese Spirit seems to promise a lot for one disc, but the program is intelligently structured in terms of showing how Chinese music written in Western media is always combining actual Chinese sources with images of itself from abroad. This will come as no surprise to those who remember the Yellow River Piano Concerto (of which a Philadelphia Orchestra commentator once wrote that it was composed by Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Liszt, and Rachmaninov) and Yellow River Cantata of Cultural Revolution days, but there was much more to Chinese classical music than that even before Chinese composers began to find international success. Pianist Tianshu Wang, who is based in Columbus, OH, frames the program with non-Chinese works that make use of Chinese elements, as if to suggest that while Chinese piano music was initially inspired by Western models, it is now in turn wielding influence beyond Chinese borders. The concluding Study on the Life Cycle of the Phoenix by Jonathan Green, written for Wang, elegantly fuses Chinese and Western elements. Alexander Tcherepnin's Concert Studies, Op. 52, were composed during a 1934 trip to China when the composer received the Chinese name of Qi Erpin. The five pieces were inspired by various forms of Chinese music. Tcherepnin also held a contest for Chinese composers themselves; the winner, He Luting's Buffalo Boy's Flute, became the first piece of piano music published in China. It's in an ABA form, with folk-like melodies elaborated with simple contrapuntal devices. But it didn't take Chinese composers long to apply the techniques of Western impressionism to traditional materials; the Music at Sunset of Li Yinghai, which exists in many versions, was an accomplished example that seems to have been closely followed by Chu Wanghua, one of the composers of the Yellow River Concerto, in his The Jasmine Flowers (track 16). Two other works depart from Chinese traditional models. Tan Dun's Eight Memories in Watercolor is an early work from the composer's student days, well before his hit scores for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and other films, but its compact movements, each exploring the implications of a specific Chinese idea, already bear his individual personality, and the album can be recommended for fans of his music on the basis of this unusual work alone. Perhaps even more intriguing, however, is Zhang Zhao's Pi Huang (Moments in Chinese Opera), with its sequence of quasi-dramatic gestures linked by Western-style modulations. These newer works suggest a fertile trend involving new methods of Chinese-Western fusion, and the album as a whole is recommended listening for anyone interested in the question of cross-cultural musical exchange.

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