On Saturday night, Georgia State University’s Kopleff Recital Hall was the site of a concert to mark the beginning of the Chinese New Year, featuring music by Chinese-American composer Lei Liang interspersed with traditional Chinese music for pipa. The performers were Bent Frequency, pipa soloist Yihan Chen, the Vega String Quartet and the Flux Saxophone Quartet.
Just before the concert began, the musicians discovered that the printed programs had somehow omitted Liang’s annotations about his music. Likewise, the planned descriptions of the traditional pieces were missing. Liang took the stage after intermission to offer descriptions of his music.
Chen opened the concert with the first of three traditional solos for pipa, “Sunny Spring and White Snow.” The pear-shaped pipa is the larger of two kinds of Chinese four-stringed lutes; its smaller sister is the liǔqín. Chen immediately demonstrated herself a serious and accomplished performer in this and her other solo of the program’s first half, “Dance of the Yi People.”
The next piece was by Liang, “Parts for a Floating Space,” performed by two Bent Frequency musicians, saxophonist Jan Berry Baker and percussionist Stuart Gerber. The composer described the architecture of the piece, written in 2001, as “open-ended,” explaining that he conceived it not as a whole but as a collection of discrete parts that might stand alone or be combined, superimposed or linked into a larger continuum.
Baker performed from the back of the hall, behind the audience, while Gerber moved about the Kopleff stage among four different set-ups of percussion instruments. In addition to being a virtuoso percussionist, one of the things Gerber does well is give attention to the visual aspects of performance, even when there is no explicit theatrical element involved. Baker and Gerber gave a strong, compelling performance of this atmospheric, structurally interpenetrative work.
Of “Yuan,” written in 2008 for saxophone quartet, Liang explains that “in Chinese, the syllable yuan encompasses a multitude of meanings, including the three words that inspired this composition: injustice, lamentation and pledge or prayer.” “Lamentation” is a good word for much of the rather dense 17-minute work, which includes some pitch-bending passages for mouthpieces alone.
“Yuan” was performed by Baker and fellow saxophonists Masahito Sugihara, Michael Bovenzi and Gary Paulo, appearing under the name Flux Saxophone Quartet. It turns out that it was an ad hoc group put together for this concert. The excellent blend and musical chemistry exhibited among these players, after only two days of rehearsal, encourages the idea that they should continue to play as a quartet, the geographical distances between them notwithstanding.
Chen opened the second half with “King Chu Doffs His Armor” but early in the piece broke a string. She stopped and apologized to the audience, saying “I will be back,” and left the stage. She returned to perform the piece after the next work on the program, Liang’s “Lake.”
Liang composed “Lake” while in upstate New York in 1999. Walking by the side of a lake one evening, he observed a “V” shape on the moonlit water, produced by a beaver swimming just under the surface. Liang recalls about that moment of inspiration, “I wished then to write a piece of music that served as the silent surface of water on which performers could inscribe their signatures in sounds.”
It was originally written for two flutes, and this was the first performance of a new version for two trumpets, played by Bent Frequency’s Amanda Pepping and GSU graduate student Blayne Bass. While the piece works reasonably well with two trumpets, it’s easy to understand why the original was for two flutes. The nature of the music and the extramusical concept behind it really call for that, even if Liang also wrote yet another version for flute and clarinet in 2004.
The concert closed with Liang’s “Five Seasons.” Written in 2010 for pipa and string quartet, the piece was inspired by the Chinese Wu Xing, a philosophical system of five “elements” which describe interactions of generation and destruction in nature. Each element is correlated to a season: wood to spring, fire to summer, earth to late or “long” summer, metal to autumn and water to winter.
Liang describes “Five Seasons” as starting with the “image of ice melting in early spring,” the droplets, evoked by pizzicato gestures, then converging into streams and rivers, followed by Liang’s memory of cicadas in late summer in Beijing, where he grew up. Downward-bending notes captured the image of leaves slowly falling in autumn, followed by the imitation of drumming, as Liang says the Chinese word “dōng” is “homonymous to drumming sound.” The composer also notes that the end of “Five Seasons” may be linked back to its beginning, reflecting the cyclical nature of seasons.
Chen and the Vega Quartet (violinists Domenic Saleri and Jessica Shuang Wu, violist Yinzi Kong and cellist Guang Wang) played the freshly inventive work with organic ebullience.