Civitas Ensemble Celebrates Chinese Composers With World Premieres

Review by: David Vernier


Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

You know the intro: “You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land…” This is what immediately came to mind as I began listening to this recording featuring world-premieres of new instrumental chamber works by five contemporary Chinese composers. Of course the dimension through which you travel here is primarily one of sound, but as you listen it’s likely that the others also will come into play, for this music is not only sensuous, sensory, even at times sensual, but always demands attention of the intellect as well.

And while you may be thinking these Chinese composers created such intriguing, affecting, often unusual sounds  by simply using instruments uncommon to the ears of most Western listeners–for the most part they do it with such “conventional” instruments as violin, cello, flute, piccolo, clarinet, and piano. Percussion of various kinds is an important element of several works, as is the pipa (the popular four-string Chinese lute), which, in the hands of virtuoso Yihan Chen, is one of the stars of the show.

This is certainly true in Zhou Long’s program-opening Five Elements, which explores the “sounds, flavors, emotions”, harmonies, and dynamics associated with metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. This version of the work, arranged specially for the Civitas Ensemble, begins with the 11-minute “Metal” and closes with a one-minute, thirty-nine-second “Earth”, and although it’s useful to know the description of each movement ahead of time, the music’s effect is strong all on its own, without any programmatic explanation. Incidentally, another “star” is percussionist Cynthia Yeh, whose own virtuosity is on full display in “Wood”.

Chen Yi’s Night Thoughts, for flute, cello, and piano might just give away its thematic inspiration without you having to know where it came from–an ancient Chinese poem. Its atmosphere, its use of three instruments (arranged here from the original for violin, cello, and piano) easily and eloquently conveys a mood that perfectly suits its subject. Lu Pei”s Scenes Through Window, for flute, clarinet, and piano trio, is a wild and wonderful 16-minute rhythmic romp–relentlessly joyful and fun from beginning to end.

And speaking of virtuosic: Vivian Fung’s Bird Song for Violin and Piano is a masterpiece of sonic partnering of these two instruments as well as a breathtaking tour de force for both, but especially for the violin. I’m not sure what bird song has to do with it, but who cares? This is marvelous.

The pipa returns in the final work, Yao Chen’s seven-movement Emanations of Tara. But where do all these other sounds come from? Just imaginative combinations of clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, percussively, melodically, harmonically, in an attempt, as the composer relates, to embody his “preoccupation with spirituality in music and the search for transcendence, both internally and externally.” He does say that the piece is “not in any way illustrative or narrative”, but an “abstract and extended meditation on a few of the qualities of Tara, the female bodhisattva of compassion and virtue…” That’s fine with me; I’m just losing myself in the music without thinking about meaning or context. A journey into another dimension. . . a wondrous land that if you choose to enter, you won’t experience casually or with indifference.

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Recording Details:

Album Title: Jin Yin

ZHOU LONG: Five Elements
CHEN YI: Night Thoughts
LU PEI: Scenes Through Window
YAO CHEN: Emanations of Tara

  • Yihan Chen (pipa); Cynthia Yeh (percussion); Emma Gerstein (flute, piccolo)
  • Civitas Ensemble

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