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Music Review

A study in contrasts at Jordan Hall

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / September 28, 2009

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The Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts is spending its 20th anniversary season doing what it has always done: bringing Chinese music and performers to Boston audiences. Last Saturday’s concert was one of the foundation’s more interesting, in that the commerce flowed both ways: a program designed by violinist Lynn Chang, contrasting the Chinese-American composer Chen Yi with the American but Asian-influenced composer Lou Harrison.

Chen’s music grafts its arresting Eastern sonic surface onto Western formal tension-and-release. “Sprout’’ brushes sixth-century Chinese melody into a rhapsodic string-orchestra arc reminiscent of Samuel Barber; “Romance and Dance’’ (with Chang and Jae Young Cosmos Lee as beguiling violin troubadours) more literally translates Chinese sounds, but the barreling finale updates Stravinsky with clustered rhythmic cogs and slashing accents. (Both pieces featured the local string orchestra A Far Cry, providing intense phrasing and a voluptuously rich sound.)

Most fun was “Ancient Dances,’’ a freewheeling duet for percussionist Robert Schulz and Wu Man, who has, it seems, single-handedly played the pipa’s way into Western classical music. (If you already knew that a pipa is a traditional Chinese lute, you can probably thank her indefatigable evangelism.) Here a plaintive, dual-soliloquy opening culminated in a driving catharsis, Chen leveraging Wu Man’s rock-star charisma - even featuring a bit of Townshend-esque windmill strumming.

In Harrison’s music, the Eastern influence pushes Western practice down more personal paths. The entrancing Concerto for Violin With Percussion Orchestra (1959) spun Chang’s beautifully threaded serpentine line over the BeatCity Art Ensemble, conducted by Schulz, drumming of world-music provenance, but channeled through materials of American transience - brake drums, coffee cans, flower pots: a hobo’s gamelan of distant locomotive rhythms, a Beat enlightenment of the road.

The road leads home in the 1997 Concerto for Pipa With String Orchestra, one of Harrison’s last works. (He died in 2003.) Aided by A Far Cry’s plushness and Wu Man’s panache, the music reveled in the family resemblances inside the global village: Chinese lute became Russian balalaika became Italian mandolin, a diatonic landscape giving way to a romantic lament and a medieval dance. But Harrison’s generous austerity was always ascendant, the pluralisms intersecting at a unique point. Wherever you go, Harrison reminds us, there you are.

MAGIC STRINGS: A Dialogue Between Pipa and Violin Presented by the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts

At: Jordan Hall, Saturday

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