When Madame Mao banned Western music in China during the 1970s, she certainly didn't intend to make America an extraordinary musical gift. She halted all education in Western music and sent young cosmopolitan musicians into the fields, where they would be exposed only to folk music and patriotic ballet and opera.
What she inadvertently produced was a group of budding composers who never lost their thirst for knowledge of the West but also gained an appreciation for their own musical roots.
During the 1980s, following the Cultural Revolution, several of those composers immigrated to New York to study at Columbia University with Chou Wen-Chung, who combined traditional Chinese music with the experimental techniques of Edgar Varese.
In their 40s, these composers are now prominent. The best known are Bright Sheng and Tan Dun, and coincidentally both have written brilliant, innovative concertos for cellist Yo-Yo Ma in which they make penetrating quests for cultural identity.
Sheng's "The Song and Dance of Tears" was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and had its premiere in Avery Fisher Hall last week. The composer describes it as a tone poem for pipa, sheng, cello, piano and orchestra. It was written for four stellar soloists, Ma, pianist Emanuel Ax, pipa player Wu Man and sheng player Wu Tong. Tan's "The Map," a concerto for cello, video and orchestra, was commissioned by the Boston Symphony, which premiered it in late February in Boston and brought it to Carnegie Hall on Monday.
In his memoir "Out of Place," Palestinian literary and cultural critic Edward Said describes how, as an intellectual growing up in a politically unstable Middle East and making a professional life in New York, he cannot attach his own sense of identity to a fixed place. Instead, he thinks of it as a set of flowing, ever-changing currents. That idea resonates deeply in modern multicultural society. Part of what makes the new Sheng and Tan concertos so gripping is the way they present this current as a fusion between East and West as well as between ancient and up-to-date cultures.
Both composers found it necessary to return to the East to write their works. Sheng spent two months on the Silk Road, collecting traditional music, seeing himself as a kind of Chinese Bartok. He was deeply moved by a folk song, "Tears," in which an old man laments his youth, and made it the basis of the concerto.
Combining such diverse instruments as cello, piano, pipa (a plucked string instrument) and sheng (a mouth organ) into a solo quartet is a sonic challenge all by itself, and it becomes a far greater one when the soloists then interact with a symphony orchestra. On the technical level, that challenge was not entirely met. The sheng, alone, was amplified and sounded unnatural. The piano often got lost in the mix.
But on an artistic level, the piece is a wonder. Sheng takes us on a voyage of discovery, working back through time. The first movement is a gorgeous lyrical effusion of flowing lines in the four solo instruments against a sweetly subdued orchestral background, reminiscent of Lou Harrison's hybrid style. The soloists are in a competition of seduction, and I can't say who enticed the ear more. The second movement is a dance with its inspiration in Bartok and in Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." Both movements are based on elements of the sad, beautiful "Tears." When the folk song is finally played in the still, stunning last movement, it feels as though, in a mere 25 minutes, it has become part of the audience's heritage.
Tan is a flashier, more experimental composer than Sheng, and "The Map" is typically a more theatrical work than "The Song and Dance of Tears," but it is no less profound a cultural exploration and breaks multimedia as well a multicultural ground. The 45-minute concerto is meant to be a journey in time and place and of the soul. In 1981, five years before coming to America, Tan visited his native Hunan province, where he encountered an old man drumming on stones and singing to the wind. "He talked both to the next life and the past one," Tan writes in the program note. The composer promised himself one day he would return and record this shaman. He decided the concerto for Ma would be that occasion.
Tan was too late. "The tea is cold," he was told on his return. The stone man had died. So, instead, Tan took a video crew and went in search of what other ancient musical cultures survived. The concerto then became for Tan a spiritual map as he tried to find his way back to the essence of the stone man.
What is most remarkable about "The Map" is the way video footage makes Nuo masked ritual drama, a Miao trumpet player, a villager who blows on a leaf and ululating Dong women into soloists. This is the ultimate concerto for Ma, a cellist whose trademark is an animated interaction with whoever is on stage.
Tan's ingenious score allows the solo cello and orchestra to interact with these exotic musics. At the center of the 10-movement concerto is video of Tan playing stones, not so much trying to emulate the shamanistic stone man as to find his own way into that spiritual world using avant-garde Western techniques.
Like Sheng, Tan is a step ahead of concert hall technology. The video projections looked very good in Carnegie, but the soundtrack seemed too faint. As with Sheng's concerto, this is work that calls for far more substantial and sophisticated amplification of all the players. But even in this compromised state, it is musically and visually mesmerizing from beginning to end, and Ma was on top of his form.
Both concertos were on interesting programs that found two conservative orchestras in a welcome stretching mode. The New York Philharmonic began with Leon Kirchner's rhapsodic Music for Cello and Orchestra, written for Ma in 1992, and Christopher Rouse's disturbing "Seeing" for piano and orchestra, written for Ax in 1998. David Zinman was the sympathetic conductor.
Tan was the conductor of the Boston Symphony. He has a flare for the podium and did a marvelous job with his work. That flare didn't exactly translate into tidy performances of Shostakovich's "Overture on Russian and Kirghiz Folk Themes," Cage's "The Seasons" or Britten's "Four Sea Interludes" from "Peter Grimes" on the first half of the program, but overall it offered a fascinating and penetrating musical investigation of nature, the seasons and the soul.
It will be interesting to see what journey Tan has in mind for his children's piece that opens Walt Disney Concert Hall in October, or how Sheng will handle his personal history in "Madame Mao," commissioned by Santa Fe Opera for the summer.