KAWAI SHIU “Unassuming Music” – Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music/ Kawai Shiu – Ablaze Records

by | Feb 18, 2011 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

KAWAI SHIU “Unassuming Music” = KAWAI SHIU: La coral de una mano alberto; in keinen worten singen wir; night lay on page; no uno violin; anthem for apep; spiral a outrance; quartet desire – soloists from the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music/ Kawai Shiu, director – Ablaze Records  ar-00002, 53:53 ****:
I say “new composer” because Kawai Shiu is new to me but he is also a young and clearly talented voice from what is becoming an almost ‘next wave’ of composers from China. From his own bio notes, Shiu explores the essence of music embodied as sound, composition, performance, and thought. His work in various fields calls attention to music as a portal to personal myth. The concept of music as an exploration myth – or very individualized feelings of any sort – is reflected very well in this fascinating new collection works for solo performers. (Shiu has a prior CD release on Ablaze, “Stream and Seasons”).
Each piece in this collection is a very attention-getting listening experience – tranquil and Zen-like one moment; bordering on violent and manic the next. la coral de una mano alberto
was commissioned by pianist Albert Tiu to be included in a program of music for right hand only, after he injured his left. Shiu wrote the piece to explore what he considered typical “hierarchies” in Western music and – just like a pianist missing the use of one hand – to explore the inverse of what is typically done in register, virtuosity, and numerous other musical and contextual parameters. la coral moves a set of six-pitch blocks progressively forward so that the blocks transform and mingle with each other quickly, almost imperceptibly. la coral does not attempt to mimic or model the few but well known one hand repertory but nor is it intended to impress with its sound, as if played by two hands. It does, however, occasionally require performing chords with six pitches. The performance here, by Albert Tiu, himself, is indeed quite impressive.
in keinen wörtern singen wir  (German: “in no words we sing”) for cello, night lay on page , for voice, and no un violín (French: “no(t) a violin” ) for viola,  are, apparently, based on three consecutive movements excerpted from Shiu’s song cycle de stroom, commissioned by Victoria Zinovieff in memory of her late mother Jennifer Ross. These works reflect the alternation between instrumental and vocal solo pieces in the cycle, and the senses of existence and non-existence reflected in that text, according to the composer.  For the purposes of this listening experience, cellist Ekachai Maskulrat plays with mystery and sensitivity this very beautiful haunting score that is actually quite melodic. Night lay on page is similarly ethereal but almost nightmarish in its use of range, volume and timbre. Even not having the whole text at hand, it leaves a powerful impression. Soprano Katherine Wallace’s performance is wonderful, evoking some of the work of Cathy Berberian  or Jan DeGaetani! Violist Zhou Yi gives a similarly intense, dedicated performance on “no un violin”. This work has a clear tonal center and sounds quite rhapsodic throughout.
Actually the last of the ‘solo’ works on this disc, spiral à outrance for flute is a very sweet piece in a lot of ways. Shiu’s notes on the piece explain that he was trying consciously to not write a stereotypical, hypertechnical work with bizarre leaps and extended techniques. While flutist Yuan Long handles the demands of this work quite well, its biggest demand is tone and expression and it is carried beautifully. anthem for apep (for horn quintet) was commissioned by the composer’s students for a wind ensemble competition. Shiu relates that this piece, like the others, was composed in reflection of the typical western music formats. In this case, he thought about why there are not more “standard repertory” works for horn quintet and, if there were, what elements should the common core contain?  The players are exposed to some unfamiliar territories in horn playing, while still have to exercise good control over ensemble playing and counterpoint. The performers on this disc do a terrific job and demonstrate a unity of timbre and complete control in the “wilder” spots.

Quartet desire
was commissioned by the South Bank Centre for the Birtwistle’s Games Festival in celebration of the composer’s seventieth birthday. The work is scored, by request, for the same instrumentation as Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. desire is not celebratory per se and is not intended to “depict” Birtwistle but is rather a “celebration” of some of Birtwistle’s favorite games in music: proliferating elementary materials, interweaving linear and circular progressions, observing various perspectives of a musical object, and staging musical personae (per Shiu’s own program notes.) My reaction to the piece was simpler and more direct: I was impressed by the sound and the craft as well as the technical prowess of the performers involved!  Clarinetist Li Xin sets the tone at the outset. Violinist Xu Tian, cellist Zhou Mi and pianist Jenny Cho all exhibit great ensemble playing in this spiky, complex score as well as some amazing technique. I was very impressed with this work and can envision it on the same program as the Messiaen, a combination that would dazzle audiences even as it would exhaust the players!
All in all, “Unassuming Music” is a very exciting album and provided yet another discovery for fans of contemporary music seeking new compositional voices. I would certainly like to find his other album!  I also give my kudos to Ablaze Records for sound quality but, more importantly, the commitment to new music that their company represents. Their website reveals that composers are openly solicited to submit scores and recordings for consideration on an ongoing basis. Additionally, the company is presently accepting orchestral scores to put on a contemporary orchestral works CD!  This is but one of the creative ways that living composers can have their works heard without waiting to hear back from the conventional symphony orchestra route. I look forward to more!
— Daniel Coombs

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