Lan Tung, erhu/vocalist: VSO Ensemble/ Gordon Gerrard, Works by Tian, Wijeratne, Tung and Benjamin, Orpheum Annex, May 31, 2015.

The final outing of the VSO’s Symphony in the Annex series set the seal on a wonderfully fertile exploration of different types of ‘new music’ this spring.  Entitled ‘The Emperor’s Daughter’, this concert served to demonstrate the far-reaching influence of aleatoric music and its potential for underscoring contemporary themes of multiculturism.  Aleatoric music is defined as music in which some element of the composition is left to chance, and/or some element of its realization is left to the determination of its performers.  There was a welcome variety in the compositions of the four composers represented: Leilei Tian, Dinuk Wijeratne, Lan Tung and George Benjamin.

Winner of numerous prizes in Europe in the last 15 years, and known for her musical quest for a ‘transcendental spirituality’, Leilei Tian’s Burning Rose makes reference to the Rosicrucian philosophy and its proposition that there is secret knowledge encoded in the universe that only an illuminated few may access. This idea is explosively portrayed through exuberant orchestration. The opening and closing sections are unbearably inventive; a comic outpouring of rapid fire motivic materials that defy their relatively cacophonic harmonic plan to express irrepressible optimism.  At the conclusion, the indelible impression left is that this work is written for 17 soloists, rather than for chamber orchestra in situ, and it is an impressive feat of musical dexterity.  Tian writes that the piece is inspired by the idea of Death and Resurrection; however, I find some difficulty in understanding this progression in musical terms.

One of the distinctive features of aleatoric music is the sectional character of its form: sections within a work can be delineated by the texture of the orchestration and/or by the saturation and force of attacks and releases.  Inspired Sri Lankan born and Canada-based Dinuk Wijeratne uses both in his chamber concerto About Sankhara, which immediately became a favorite work on the programme.  This work was written as part of Wijeratne’s thesis at the Julliard School of Music, but it suffers from none of the stereotypes associated with academic music. It is tangibly a commentary on both the benefits and challenges of multiculturalism.  Wijeratne’s use of culturally encoded instruments -- the djembe and tabla -- with the chamber orchestra create a dialogue not only between East and West, but also tradition and innovation. Most striking is the composer’s use of rhythmic interplay between djembe and sections of the orchestra, whose juxtaposition perhaps creates an audible account of the struggle to remain authentic in one’s own culture while simultaneously engaging with another. Wijeratne treats the different sections of the orchestra as autonomous voices, supplemented by remarkably poignant solos. Turbulent tympani, strident trumpet, and frenetic temple blocks indicate both the force of the composer’s ideal and his mastery in executing his vision. This work is one that I look forward to seeing on many more concert programmes in the future.

Lan Tung’s (Hopefully) Happily Ever After is the composer’s reimagining of the final scene of Cantonese opera The Emperor’s Daughter as expressed through the erhu, a Chinese two-stringed violin.  As a soloist, Tung is absolute perfection, languid and flexible, but penetrating and forceful at the same time. For this piece, Tung also sings the narration while playing the erhu, adapting Western instrumentation to the Cantonese opera style with stunning fidelity and authenticity.  The composition embodies a true quilting of styles, opening with a traditional sounding Cantonese fanfare written for Western instruments, but the expectation that this will be sustained is then flouted by the composer’s use of a typical jazz style walking bass and mixed meter groove -- with sections of aleatoric improvisation thrown in as well. The plot of the informing material is truly the stuff of high drama. Nobility, integrity, dynasty, and a final suicide pact performed on a royal nuptial night are the themes of the opera that inspired Tung, and she brings all the drama and majesty of Cantonese opera to this moving interpretation.

George Benjamin is one of Britain’s most distinguished modern composers, a student of Alexander Goehr and Olivier Messiaen, who has the enviable distinction of being the youngest composer to ever have a work performed at the BBC Proms (in 1980, when he was just 20). His composition At First Light rounded out the evening’s program. It was the composer’s observation of a J.M.W. Turner painting (Norham Castle, Sunrise, 1845, Tate Gallery) that inspired this work, but I think it would be a mistake to say that the music directly represents the painting, since the music and the painting differ on many formal levels. Benjamin is seemingly using his reaction as an artist to the painting -- as art -- to form the aesthetic of At First Light. The painting is a Romantic landscape, saturated with sunlight and enveloping in its sensuality.  Roughly tripartite in construction, the work begins delicately with violin harmonics, but quickly moves into more pungent territory, where Benjamin’s sunrise emerges with shattering crashes in suspended cymbal and piano. The harmonic teleology of the work is certainly modern with flashes of the Phrygian dominant scale. The following section is more tender and delicate with exquisite part writing for oboe and trumpet. The finale revisits some of the opening material with lush harmonies and cultured elisional entrances. Overall, it is a powerful, commanding work, challenging for performers, and likely requires repeated hearings for the listener to absorb its full depth.

Once again, ‘Bravo’ to all concerned for this stimulating VSO series: Jocelyn Morlock, Edward Top, conductors Bramwell Tovey and Gordon Gerrard, and of course all the musicians who showed such commitment and artistry in performing these difficult works so faithfully.


© Kate Mackin 2015