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Bright SHENG (b. 1955)
Let Fly! – Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (2013) [27:36]
Zodiac Tales – Concerto for Orchestra (2006, revised 2016) [30:17]
Suzhou Overture (2019) [9:46]
Dan Zhu (violin)
Suzhou Symphony Orchestra, Shanghai Symphony Orchestra/Bright Sheng
rec. March, 2018, Shanghai Symphony Hall; August 2019, Jinji Lake Concert Hall, Suzhou
Premiere recordings.
NAXOS 8.570628 [67:50]

One comes to any orchestral work by Bright Sheng with the expectation that it will be imaginatively colourful and that its orchestral colour will often be used in the service of some kind of non-musical programme as, for example, in The Phoenix (referencing a story by Hans Christian Andersen) or The Blazing Mirage (which was inspired by the Buddhist frescoes in the Dunhuang Caves). Let Fly! isn’t as orchestrally spectacular as some of Sheng’s works, or as its title rather led me to expect, but it is still enjoyable and stimulating. The work was jointly commissioned by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. It was written for, and dedicated to, violinist Gil Shaham, who gave the premiere in October 2013 with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Slatkin. It is worthwhile, I think, to quote from Sheng’s own programne note for the piece (rather than my paraphrasing that note): “Borrowed from a folk song genre in southeast China (‘flying song’), the title of the work came from two inspirations. First, it is the aural image of the violin melody just flying off in the air, an everlasting sensation when I first saw Gil Shaham perform a concert. The second inspiration of the title came from my daughter Fayfay (homonym for ‘to fly’ in Chinese). I wrote a child rhyme named after her when she was born on November 15th, 2010. And the first phrase of the song appears a few times in the composition.”

The cover painting on the disc’s booklet is credited to Fayfay Sophie Sheng, so the work’s relationship to the composer’s daughter is celebrated visually, as well as aurally. Let Fly! is in three distinct sections (acknowledging the usual structure of a concerto), played without a break – save for a cadenza played between the second and third sections. In the booklet notes with this CD Sheng writes “the soloist is encouraged to write his or her own cadenza, of no more than one or two minutes, ideally based on the materials which have appeared up to this point of the concerto.” In the first section/movement there is a sense of the violin being heard at a distance, surrounded by plenty of space (I think this is an intention of the writing, rather than an accident of recording, since I have been told, by a Chinese music student familiar with the work, that one of the ‘sources’ Sheng draws on here is the folk tradition whereby lovers in parts of rural China communicated by singing to one another across wide valleys). There is certainly a kind of lightness and airiness to the lyrical writing for the violin here, qualities well-articulated by the accomplished soloist Dan Zhu, who achieves a near weightlessness of sound at times. As we move into the second section/movement, the atmosphere is nocturnal, as the violin seems to invite us to look up to the stars rather than at the earth. Sheng’s writing for the violin involves some prominent use of harmonics and the result feels somewhat crystalline, distinctly pellucid and yet gleaming. The orchestral sound is altogether more solid and weighty, at times, indeed, quite turbulent. The sense of a dialogue between soloist and orchestra is more striking in this section than elsewhere in the work. After Zhu’s thoughtful cadenza, the closing section/movement has more than a little of the first section’s sense of space. The adjectives I am inclined to use about Let Fly!, such as ‘well-made’, ‘pleasant’ and ‘interesting’ may sound like damning with faint praise, which is not what I intend. Best perhaps, while affirming that these are indeed some of its attractions, to concede that there are weaknesses too. In a review of the premiere, Brian Wigman clearly shared some of my reservations, when he wrote that while being “wonderfully crafted”, Let Fly! lacked “the ‘tunes’ of the great concertos, and none of the melodies linger in the mind”.

The second work on this disc, the set of six Zodiac Tales offers more straightforward pleasures than Let Fly!. It is more obviously, one might say more ‘purely’, a programmatic work. Each of its six movements (the longest running to 9:22, the shortest a mere 2:19) responds to a traditional story about one or other of the animals who make up the Chinese zodiac. In playing order, these are ‘The God of Rain’ (i.e. the Dragon), ‘Of Mice and Cats’, ‘Three Lambs Under the Spring Sun’, ‘The Elephant-Eating Snake’, ‘The Tomb of the Soulful Dog’ and ‘The Flying Horses’. Sheng’s music is every bit as colourful as these titles suggest. The first piece opens powerfully with a sense of a more than merely human power (the god of rain being, after all, a dragon), this god having power over rainfall, floods and the like. But it is also relevant to remember that many Chinese emperors adopted the dragon as the symbol of their power, since there are also some courtly sounding passages (to my Western ears) in Sheng’s short (5:12) tone poem. In ‘Of Mice and Cats’ a stealthy opening and some mock-heroic brass are followed by much scurrying in the strings and a somewhat ‘dramatic’ conclusion (the ‘drama’ being qualified by the scale of the protagonists!). Elsewhere the listener may need a little background to appreciate the significance of Sheng’s music. The composer’s notes for ‘The Tomb of the Soulful Dog’ tell us of a fable about Emperor Liu Bang, founder of the Han Dynasty, whose favourite dog lost its life in extinguishing a fire started by a besieging army, thus making victory possible for the Emperor. Liu had “the dog buried in a serene ceremony and built a tombstone inscribed ‘The Tomb of the Soulful Dog’.” Armed with this information one can trace (in essentials, at least) the narrative contained in Sheng’s music. It is also necessary and appropriate to quote the last two sentences of Sheng’s note on the piece: “This movement was written in memory of my mother Alice Cheng who was born in the year of the dog, and passed away on 8 February 2005. It is built on the passacaglia of a Buddhist chant sung by three nuns at the death bed of my mother.” The beautiful serenity of the movement’s close (a serenity disturbed by an explosion of emotion) seems to speak of the composer’s personal loss as well as of the Emperor’s love for his heroic dog. These six attractive pieces were written in 2006 and five of them were premiered (in January 2014) by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Leonard Slatkin. This recording is of a revision made in 2016 and premiered by the National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Christoph Eschenbach in June 2017. I very much hope that Sheng will find time to write the ‘missing’ pieces – for zodiac animals such as the pig, the rooster, the monkey and the tiger – so as to complete the set of 12; I suspect that others will share that hope when they have heard this recording.

The third and final piece on this disc was, I believe, originally commissioned as the score for a promotional film about the ancient city of Suzhou, established some 3,000 years ago and famous for its many contributions to Chinese culture. The city – some 60 miles northeast of Shanghai – was the birthplace of two kinds of Chinese opera (Kingu and Suzhou); its gardens have been famous for many centuries, as have its silk products and its carved jade. It was home to many distinguished poets, like Fan Chéngdà (1126-1193 CE) and painters, such as Wen Zhenheng (1585-1645 CE). Now it is also a thriving modern city and Sheng writes that in his piece he tried “to embody this old/new sentiment: traditional nostalgia and lyrical melodies are woven together with modern rhythmic vigour […] reflecting Suzhou’s continuous creativity from the ancient to the present.” The resulting Suzhou Overture does not seek to be particularly profound; Sheng is content for his music to be accessible and colourful, with some rich writing for the strings and some striking percussive effects. This piece wouldn’t be a primary reason to buy this disc. Better reasons for doing that exist in Let Fly! (though I haven’t found it easy to get to grips with this, I hear more with each hearing) and the excellent Zodiac Tales.

Glyn Pursglove

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