An Epic, Majestic, Transcendent Carnegie Hall Concert by the China National Traditional Orchestra

by delarue

Prosaically speaking, the China National Traditional Orchestra play both old folk themes and new works on traditional instruments, using western-style symphonic arrangements. Sunday night at Carnegie Hall, the mighty, majestic group performed a riveting, dynamically rich program of both ancient and contemporary music that was as vast and historically rich as China itself, a paradigm-shifting and potentially life-changing experience. This was not safe, self-congratulatory, doctrinaire state-sponsored music. It was as avant garde as anything staged in this city this year…yet pretty much everybody in the house knew the source material, and by the final sprint through a blustery coda, the majority of the crowd was clapping or singing along.

While this group’s setup is modeled on the typical European symphony orchestra, the timbres are uniquely Chinese, subtly spiced with overtones and microtones that don’t typically exist in the western classical canon. The choice of instrumentation alone creates a brand-new genre, considering that traditional Chinese ensembles tend to be smaller and more focused on either strings or winds. In place of oboes and clarinets, this group substitutes the high midrange suona, along with bamboo alto flutes and a series of shengs, giant counterparts to the harmonica. In place of cellos, the magical, overtone-generationg low-midrange erhu, but also a section of Chinese zhongruan guitars. Other plucked textures, from harp, pipa lute and yangqin zither added alternately delicate and spikily sizzling sounds that grounded the music in centuries of tradition. In the back, in place of timpani, an entire row of big bass drums and gongs which on occasion were employed to deliver torrentially roaring washes unheard of in the most explosive western symphonic music.

Several works by the ensemble’s visionary composer-in-residence, Jiang Ying, took centerstage. The most stunning, slinky, suspenseful one was the opening mini-suite, Silk Road, which set the stage for much of the rest of the concert as it built suspense from a hushed conversation between Wu Yuxia’s pipa and Wang Ciheng’s xiao flute. With titanic swells and dips, a graceful pipa solo and constantly shapeshifting variations on a swaying caravan pace awash in edgy Middle Eastern-tinged tonalities, it was the most cinematic of all the material on the bill.

Ying’s Impressions Suite was hilarious. From one of the second-tier boxes close to the stage, a lively birdcall began to warble, answered from the center section, and then the whole venue came alive with the chattering of flutes. We had been infiltrated by flutists! Suddenly the forest was flickering with what seemed to be hundreds of species, in a constantly mutating stereo swirl! Conductor Liu Sha spun and beamed and tackled the daunting task of keeping the flock together with seamless aplomb.

The second half of the program began with a bellicose, wildly atonal, chord-chopping pipa duel between Zhao Cong and Yu Yuanchun, augmented by similarly kinetic percussion: it was the most improvisational and challenging piece of the night. An ancient fishing boat song brought to mind a blustery if successful days’ worth of hauling in a catch, fueled by Wu Lin’s graceful, balletesque harp. Hua Yanjun’s The Moon Reflected on the Spring for erhu and orchestra, as its title would imply, contrasted stark, stately strings against a balmy, plushly nocturnal backdrop.

Zhongruan player Feng Mantian seized the role of frontman and lead guitarist on Ying’s arrangement of the traditional Rhapsody of Xintianyou, sort of a Chinese counterpart to a Richard Thompson Britfolk anthem. The program closed with a soaring, ecstatically galloping take of the 1939 Xian Xinghai suite Yellow River, a defiant narrative of Chinese resistance and triumph over the brutal Japanese invasion. For the encores, the orchestra went into similarly rousing, stampeding Mongolian folk territory, leaving the audience breathles and on their feet. It’s too bad that there weren’t more non-Chinese speakers in the crowd: this music embraces tonalities far beyond traditional Asian scales and would resonate with just about any global audience, if only they could hear it.