Huang Ruo’s music is instantly recognizable and completely unique. He likes brass and percussion, but utilizes both in surprising ways, especially in his most horizontal moments. The many traditions of his native China are an influence, but subtly. Close harmonies, dense orchestration and the stately grandeur of Chinese court music are persistent tropes throughout his diverse new album Into the Vast World – streaming at Spotify – the first collection of his symphonic works. Liang Zhang conducts the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra with equal parts fire and precision in this live concert performance from the fall of 2019.
Ruo himself shows off a dramatic, highly ornamented falsetto in his long a-cappella introduction to the pulsing first number, Shattered Steps – in an imaginary, improvised language. In the beginning this is a fanfare, it’s a dance, it’s driving and dramatic, with lots of bracing close harmonies. A sudden stillness fueled by unsettled brass and low flutters ensues; Zhang meticulously leads the ensemble up a long slope toward starrier but also more suspenseful textures. After a hint of a spring ritual, Ruo returns for the shivery coda.
Becoming Another, a study in contrasts between stillness and activity, has a persistent, enveloping tension, horizontality looming behind a series of increasingly animated motives. Counterintuitively, it grows more lustrously atmospheric as a minimalist fanfare spirals up through the cloud: John Luther Adams’ recent environmentally-themed work is a good point of comparison.
Ruo returns to the same dichotomy in Stil/Motion, which is more minimal, with simpler, persistent rhythms, and covers a wider dynamic range.
Mezzo-soprano Guang Yang sings two segments from Ruo’s opera An American Soldier, based on the short life of Private Danny Chen, who was murdered by fellow American troops during his first tour of duty in Afghanistan. The first part, So That’s the Man, has an acidic, accusatory, gusty intensity as his mother witnesses the courtmartial of the racists who killed him. Yang delivers the first moment of distinctly Chinese pentatonics over restlessly drifting, brass-tinged atmosphere in the second, Lullaby: Sleep Now, Little One
The Two Pieces For Orchestra begin with a Fanfare which has more of the same brass and fleeting upper-register motives puncturing a dense, nebulous atmosphere. The second part, Announcement opens with a distant paraphrase of a Chinese riverboat song, tossing and then floating while the percussion section maintains a relentless intensity. The massed string glissandos are an unexpected extra shot of adrenaline and offer no hint of the windswept cello-fueled interlude afterward. The orchestra calmly sing the outro before one of Ruo’s characteristic, dramatic gong crashes at the end.
The orchestra wind up the album with four shorter works also based on folk themes. With its precise, racewalking beat and stabbing flutes, Flower Drum Song from Feng Yang has a martial feel. Love Song from Kang Ding and Little Blue Flower are the album’s most hypnotically circling piece, yet each also rises to a pulsing drama, the latter with a plaintive violin solo. The ensemble make a triumphant anthem out of The Girl from Da Ban City, a catchy taxi driver’s song, to wind up the album.