Chee-Kong Ho, born Singapore 1963, is a composer of orchestral-, chamber-, piano- and electro-acoustic works. “Shades of Oil Lamps” was commissioned by the 2008 Singapore Arts Festival. Over a jaunty counterpoint of woodblock, gong and marimba, a Chinatown storyteller draws his listeners in with a tale, suddenly leaving them wondering as he goes off to collect hand-outs. An essentially Asian piece, it uses the woodblock as a recurring motif against the backing of which other players create evocative individual melodic of motivic strands culminating in a pentatonic-type harmony. In the Israel Contemporary Players’ performance, the primal rhythmic underlay of the piece was not too inebriating to camouflage the artful solos of flautist Dafna Yitzhaki, clarinetist Michal Beit-Hallahmi, percussionist Oded Geizhals and double-bass player Danny Felsteiner, the latter adding to the unique percussion timbres symbolically dropping coins into a brass bowl. Collaborating in a performance of precision, shape and delicacy, the Israel Contemporary Players brought a warm, exotically vibrant, social Asiatic-Chinese scene to the concert hall.
Japanese conductor and composer Isao Matsushita’s (b.1951,Tokyo) mostly orchestral-, chamber-, choral- and vocal works are widely performed. A professor at Tokyo University of the Arts and Music, musical director of Camerata Nagano and the Bunkyo Civic Orchestra, he represents Ensemble Kochi (East Wind) and is resident composer of the Hibiki String Orchestra (Japan). “Tenku-no-Hikari” (A Shining Firmament) is the second piece of the “Inori (Prayer) Trilogy” for chamber ensemble. The composer spoke of the importance of the number “three” as arising from the Buddhist concept of “Shin-ku-I”, meaning “body-speech-soul”, the ideal human balance between all three; the idea of rays of light undergoing gradual metamorphosis, stimulate the concentration needed for prayer. In time, these rays of light return to the heavens. Zsolt Nagy and the players presented the almost pictorial mood piece in delicate strands – high string sounds, woodwinds, muted trumpet and arpeggios on the piano – these forming long held notes gaining progressively more color, embellished by ‘cello. The effect was an eerie, alienated scene, all instrumental strands building up to a compelling intense sound, the piece ending with minimal, high, joyless filaments of sound.
Born in China and living in the USA since 2001, Yao Chen started as a singer and pianist, studying at the Xinghai Conservatory of Music in Guangzhou and the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. Following the completion of his doctorate in composition at the University of Chicago, Yao joined the composition faculty of the School of Music at Illinois State University. His compositions and research fuse musical approaches of east and west in an innovative, personal manner, his perceptions on time, timbre, intonation, pulsation and expression straddling modern- and traditional concepts, mystical- and logical aspects with cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary references. Working in multiple genres, his works are performed widely. The concept of Tangents II 2010/2012 relates to the geometrical, astronomical tangent, a point’s eventual return to starting point, this likened to the journey of a person’s life, in which connections always end in parting, with parting always finding a way back to unity. The piece falls into three sections. From the opening section, peppered with many single notes and glissandi, to the middle section in which the half-tone motif moves from instrument to instrument, punctuated by stormy outbursts, the last section is intense, using a multitude of ideas and textures that eventually break down, become minimalized and die away. The effect is one of harmony as well as randomness. On the subject of chamber music, Yao, in an interview with Jen Wang (director of Wild Rumpus New Music Collective) refers to each player as an individual actor or actress. For that reason, he gives each voice of the piece “a significant aspect of individuality and theatricality”, demanding that “musicians have to lift their sensibility up to a visible level. Breathing, expressions, characteristic motives, accents in the music should be seen in their physical movements”.
Born in Tajikistan in 1962, Benjamin Yusupov studied in Moscow in the 1980s and immigrated to Israel in 1990. His father was a folk musician who played the rubab, an instrument indigenous to the Tajik-Iranian region. Yusupov, therefore, grew up with the ethnic music of the region but was taught piano in the European tradition. The composer speaks of himself as “Jewish, with a background in a Muslim tradition of music and a western education from Moscow”. Composed in 2010, Memories (Crossroads no.6), an octet for flute, clarinet, bassoon, violin, viola, ‘cello, harp and piano, was commissioned by the Danish Storstrøms Kammerensemble and premiered by the group at the Orienten Festival. It belongs to the cycle of works titled “Crossroads”, all of which focus on the merging of cultures, compositional methods and different manners of musical development. The piece is dedicated to the memory of Yusupov’s father, who died in 2009. The composer speaks of music as having the unique ability of expressing emotions in the purest and most authentic way. In the work, Yusupov’s music represents the words and emotions he, for a variety of reasons, was never able to convey to his father. Using conventional instruments to create a work influenced by ethnic sounds, the piece, meditative in mood, evokes ancient, dour, folk-style melodies as well as distinctly Jewish musical elements, the latter’s melancholy melodies played on clarinet (Michal Beit Halachmi), to be taken over by the bassoon (Richard Paley). Interesting piano- and xylophone effects add to the work’s soul-searching character. Yusupov’s skilful compositions weave musical motifs, textures and strategies into the aesthetics of musical expression and human communication.
The concert ended with György Ligeti’s (1923-2006) Concerto for Piano and Chamber Orchestra (1985-1988). Ligeti was born to Hungarian Jewish parents in a village that today is a part of Romania, and was educated in Budapest. Setting aside the doctrinally correct folk song arrangements of his early career, he moved to Vienna where he came in contact with Karlheinz Stockhausen, the Darmstadt contemporary music summer events and the post-serial avant-garde. Of the five movements of the Piano Concerto, four are fast. The second movement is a mood piece, its atmosphere created by long pedal notes, microtonal slides and an unusual use of such colors as produced by low piccolo sounds and high bassoon notes. Ligeti’s score also calls for an exotic array of percussion instruments, slide whistle, harmonica and ocarina. Zsolt Nagy led his players through the whirlwind of rhythmically propelled ideas created by colliding cross-rhythms and feisty melodies at dizzying speeds, in a performance that at no moment ventured towards a thick blur of cacophony or musical rough-housing. Nagy’s directing was articulate, drawing awareness to the work’s development and timbre. Pianist Ofra Yithaki reminded the audience of how pianistic Ligeti’s writing is; her performance was outstanding not just in its virtuosity - it abounded in accuracy, freshness, a clear sense of the full score, in color and elegance. Nagy has, at his disposal, an ensemble of first-class players; together, they read deeply into modern works, ensuring much interest and enjoyment in this unique concert series.