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Monday, June 29, 2015

Zhou Long, Chen Yi, Symphony "Humen 1839," New Zealand Symphony, Darrell Ang

There are a number of Chinese composers active today who are talented and original. A good example is Zhou Long (b. 1953), who is featured on a recent CD of orchestral works. The central work is Symphony "Humen 1839" (Naxos 8.570611) which he co-wrote in 2009 with composer Chen Yi (b. 1953). It commemorates the 1839 seizing and burning of 1000 tons of opium amassed by British traders. The action set off the First Opium Wars with the British. The work has rhythmic vitality, a very contemporary orchestral sound that is spiced with motifs that have a vaguely traditional Chinese feel to them, along with inventive tonal and extra-tonal modern dynamics. The music is descriptively evocative, at times turbulent, other times reflective. It stands on its own as orchestral music of today with its own original cast.

Two additional Long works complete the program. The first, "The Rhyme of Taigu" (2003) features three Japanese Taiko drummers, clarinet, violin and cello. Like the Symphony it also has passages that are highly rhythmic.

The program concludes with Long's "The Enlightened" (2005), which concerns itself with contemporary world struggles and the possibility of achieving peace and understanding in the universe via harmony and balance in personal everyday life. This goal and its attainment is in accordance with ancient Chinese philosophy. The work tries to capture this all via sound-episode narrative. It has a mysterious quality in the opening, then goes on to depict episodes of tension and release with vivid orchestrational expression that makes use of space and contrast in ways somewhat suggestive of ancient Asian music, yet with a very modern result.

In the end we hear some very provocative and original music that may not quite reach the level of seminal masterpieces but nonetheless maintains interest through an expressive mastery of the orchestral colors available. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under Darrell Ang does a respectable job bring these works to life. Long and Yi give us music well worth hearing, world-class orchestral music that goes its own way and reflects a melding of Asian and contemporary elements both convincing and at times quite exciting.

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