BRIGHT SHENG: Shanghai Overture; Never Far Away; The Nightingale and the Rose; Tibetan Love Song and Swing – Yolanda Kondonassis, harp/ San Diego Symphony Orchestra/ Jahja Ling, conductor – Telarc

by | Sep 23, 2009 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

BRIGHT SHENG: Shanghai Overture; Never Far Away; The Nightingale and the Rose; Tibetan Love Song and Swing – Yolanda Kondonassis, harp/ San Diego Symphony Orchestra/ Jahja Ling, conductor – Telarc 80719, 67:56 ****1/2:

Bright Sheng, born in 1955, survived the Chinese cultural revolution long enough to turn the horrid thing absolutely on its ear. After its end he was able to enroll in the newly constituted Shanghai Conservatory (where he claims to have received an excellent musical foundation) but was denied a diploma upon moving to New York in 1982 and studying with any number of luminaries. His music is testament to the firm bridge he has been able to build between his native country and the western classical tradition, far more inspiring than anything the bloodthirsty and insipid Mao of sorry memory was able to achieve.

These works are all the friendlier side of Sheng—there is a more difficult complex in some of his works—and each in its own way a fine contribution to the literature. Shanghai Overture, with its exuberant and big-city beginning reminded me in many ways of Copland’s Music for a Great City, finally dedicated to London but written with New York in mind. Though the two have nothing in common stylistically, both works are able to convey the action, activity, and incessant motion inhabiting each locale. In Sheng’s Shanghai the action comes to a quiet close. This piece is inspired by two folksongs, “Purple Bamboo” and “The General’s Daughter”.

The Nightingale and the Rose is a 22-minute ballet based on a short story by Oscar Wilde where the bird sacrifices itself for a student’s love of a professor’s daughter. Sheng worked closely with the New York City Ballet (where he was composer in residence) to create this evocative score. Listening to it proved a challenge to me in hearing something dance-like; there is no obvious connection to what we might consider a traditional ballet score. But then again the stage is often able to provide the match that the ear is lacking, and I can easily imagine the dramatic possibilities germinating within this piece.

“La’i”, a traditional Tibetan love song, provided the basis for Tibetan Love Song. Though the composer speaks of it in romantic ways, it appears that there are some romances that are a little livelier than others, for this work has its brash and even bombastic moments, not at all what I was initially expecting. In fact, its companion piece, Swing, proved a little more amiable in character to me. It is based on what the composer calls a “typical Tibetan dance rhythm” and is an energetic and sometimes frenzied evocation of mountain dancing with sleeves flying and all tired and worn at the completion, as it fades out as if the person watching begins to depart.

The featured work here (since Yolanda Kondonassis has a lot of the notes in the booklet and a big picture on the back of the disc cover) is Never Far Away, a concerto for harp and orchestra. Truth be told, it deserves the attention, for it is the best work on the disc and a major contribution to the harp repertory. This is a work that employs some unusual devices, like threading strips of paper through the entire range of strings (third movement) but which create a valid musical effect, not something simply for shock value. Sheng is not hesitant to explore the entire spectrum of the harp’s sonic possibilities while using some delightfully melodic and moving music that is only enhanced by the esoteric. The three movements do all have extra-musical associations, “Moonlight Shadows” based on a Chinese folk song about a girl’s pining away for her lover, “The Drunker Fisher” based on a Chinese song of the same name, and “Doctored Pentatonics” referring to a three-note motive of the pentatonic scale and its various permutations. Sheng’s music is always accessible, meaning that one does not have to learn a different musical language to comprehend it, even though the vocabulary might get rather thorny at times; however, there is not a lot of that on this disc, and none in this piece, one of the best harp concertos—or concertos of any kind—that I have heard recently.

Telarc is under new management, so we may not be seeing as many SACDs as we used to, and there is no information as to whether this one will be available in the advanced format or not. It is still a very fine recording, the fifteenth project that harpist Kondonassis has been involved with concerning the label, and a triumph for one of my favorite conductors, the astounding Jahja Ling and his San Diego Symphony, not quite world class, but more than respectable, and no doubt moving towards that goal under Ling’s leadership.  Highly recommended!

— Steven Ritter

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