Wednesday 30 April 2014

Excellent performances from Lü Jia and the Macau Orchestra in works by Chinese composer, Xiaogang Ye, on a new release from Naxos

Xiaogang Ye (b.1955) is regarded as one of the leading contemporary Chinese composers. He studied at the Central Conservatory of Music in China and, after graduation, he was appointed Resident Composer and Lecturer at the Central Conservatory of Music in China. He later studied at the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester in New York. His teachers have been Minxin Du, Samuel Adler, Joseph Schwantner, Louis Andriessen and Alexander Goehr. Since 1993, Ye divides his time between Beijing and Exton, Pennsylvania.

Ye’s oeuvre comprises symphonic works, chamber music for various instruments and stage works, as well as film music. He has received numerous prizes and awards, among others the 1982 Alexander Tcherepnin prize, the 1986 Japan Dance Star Ballet prize, and awards from the Urban Council of Hong Kong (1987-94), the Taiwan Symphony Orchestra (1992), the China Cultural Promotion Society (1993), the Li Foundation, San Francisco (1994) and the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra (1996). He was a fellow of the Metropolitan Life Foundation and the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts in 1996, and of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in 2012.

In August 2008, Ye's piano concerto Starry Sky was premiered, by Lang Lang, during the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing. Accompanied by dance and light shows the live broadcast was watched by three billion people worldwide.

A new release from Naxos features the Macau Youth Choir and Macau Orchestra conducted by Lü Jia with Shi Yijie (tenor)  and Liu Mingyan (mezzo-soprano) in two works by Xiaogang Ye, His ballet suite The Macau Bride and Four Poems of Lingnan

The ballet, The Macau Bride, was commissioned by the Cultural Institute of the Macau SAR Government and premiered in 2001. It is based on a 17th century story set in Macau and Portugal in which a Chinese sailor and a Portuguese captain’s daughter fall in love. The Ballet Suite, Op. 34 (2001) is drawn from both the original ballet and two published suites.

A harp flourish then pizzicato strings opens Return to Sea before a vibraphone plays a light and jolly tune against the pizzicato orchestra. The tune is then shared between the vibraphone and other percussion before being taken up by the woodwind. The music rises to a peak before a trumpet enters and the theme is shared around orchestra. The music rises to a final climax to end, full of confidence.

What sounds very much like a Chinese bamboo flute opens Blessings and Devotion. before a gentle orchestral theme joins. A wordless choir soon adds its texture and atmosphere to this melody with a Chinese lilt. Soon the orchestral sound is even more Chinese in style with string sounds that resemble the erhu or Chinese viollion in this most attractive section. First Encounter brings a scurrying string theme with harp and descending woodwind phrases as well as some lovely woodwind flourishes.

A plaintive oboe opens The First Glance, the theme of which is taken by a flute before being developed into a rich romantic theme for the whole orchestra. The flute returns with a horn before the orchestral melody moves forward. A second subject leads with flute and oboe to the coda.

A pulsing rhythm underlines a string melody for Barra Docks. The Chinese sounding flute again enters as the tempo increases and the theme is taken forward with percussion adding a light texture. Unusual pizzicato sounds emerge before the music builds with the music dancing forward and the sound of the Chinese flute entering before the end.

In Gentle Moments, a theme for flute and hushed orchestra is soon taken up by the oboe in this rather French sounding opening. The full orchestra soon joins before horns rise upwards. The Chinese flute enters in a lovely theme before a piano takes the slow theme soon joined by a flute and oboe. Eventually the music raises the theme to a rich romantic tune, somewhat filmic but none the worse for that. The Chinese flute returns before the piano and flute both lead on, with the full orchestra returning in the rich romantic theme that becomes increasingly passionate. The flute returns to lead the music to a quiet end. This is a direct, yet hugely enjoyable section. 

A jaunty oboe theme with pizzicato strings opens Maria do Mar before the theme is shared around the orchestra. Soon there is a slow, longer breathed section, for flute, then oboe, then a mixture of wind instruments. The full orchestra leads to a richer version of the melody before a solo violin makes an appearance. The jaunty theme returns with a slightly Prokovievian feel.

Unbending Loyalty opens with a harp before the mezzo-soprano, Liu Mingyan, enters adding her wordless vocalising with a gentle orchestral accompaniment. Soon a flute plays a melody over harp arpeggios before the solo violin joins in this rising and falling theme and a flute announces the return of Liu Mingyan’s lovely voice.

Pulsating strings, soon joined by an oboe, open The Captain’s Mansion before the rest of orchestra join in this pulsating, forward moving theme. Brass add texture and rhythm as a glockenspiel and various instruments of the orchestra share in this rhythmically pulsating theme before the orchestra rises as the theme moves on in a rather intoxicating section that draws the listener on before its sudden end.

Wedding Reception brings the whole orchestra with percussion in a return to the more Chinese flavour before strings herald the return of the voiceless choir in a melody that has definite Chinese inflections. Soon the orchestra leads the music on in another romantic theme, slowly rising up before a climax with drums and percussion.

Those who wish for more demanding music, of greater depth, will perhaps not respond to this music. However, for all its lighter nature this is music that has a natural beauty, finely orchestrated. 

The Macau Youth Choir and Macau Orchestra conducted by Lü Jia provide fine performances whilst mezzo-soprano, Liu Mingyan, is in excellent voice.

Four Poems of Lingnan, Op. 62 (2011) was commissioned by the Cultural Affairs Bureau of Macau and the Macau Orchestra and sets poems by a number of poets from early dynasties on the subject of Lingnan, a region of Southern China.

Bidding Farewell to a Friend to the South of the Five Ridges brings a gentle orchestral opening with flute before tenor, Shi Yijie enters. There are gentle dissonances here and a lovely orchestral backdrop to the tenor’s fine voice. This setting that opens on the words, ‘The overlapping mountains of old Jiaozhou’, is full of drama and poetry with a dynamic orchestral ending.

Fluttering woodwind lead into the faster moving The Best for Huizhou,a buoyant setting evoking the opening words, ‘Under the Luofu Mountain all seasons are spring’, where Shi Yijie brings a melodic freshness to the music. Again, subtle little dissonances intrude as the melody flows quickly forward.

A slow gentle melody opens Bidding Farewell to Li Meizhou before the tenor sings a gentle plaintive setting with some sensitive, poetic orchestral passages with exquisite woodwind sounds. Shi Yijie is terrific, particularly in the coda, showing fine control.

Brass open Ascending the Zhenhai Tower at Chongyang Day, before orchestral flourishes introduce the tenor. There are swirling orchestral sounds between the sung texts. This tenor has a powerful voice, rising to the climaxes magnificently and beautifully controlled in the final poetic conclusion.

If the ballet suite is a lighter, romantic work, then the settings of poems are deeper and more adventurous in their language. Lü Jia and the Macau Orchestra provide excellent accompaniments to tenor, Shi Yijie’s, fine voice.

With excellent performances and a fine recording, this new release will appeal to many. There are informative booklet notes and full English translations of the Chinese texts. More information about some of the instruments used would have been useful.

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