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When Hsiao-mei Ku was nine years old, she played for violinist and composer Ma Sicong (1912-87), an occasion that left an indelible mark. According to Ms. Ku, he is the reason she's a musician. She was initially denied entrance to Beijing's Central Conservatory because her family wasn't sufficiently revolutionary, but he wrote a letter on her behalf that opened the doors for her. Now, as a distinguished professor of the Duke Music faculty and member of the Ciompi Quartet, Hsiao-mei Ku and her collaborating partner Ning Lu (University of Utah) have recorded two CDs in recognition and memory of Ma Sicong. Both were recorded in Libby Gardner Concert Hall at the University of Utah School of Music; Volume 1 in 2006, and Volume 2 in 2007.
Ma Sicong, a violinist and prolific composer, was highly regarded by the music community in China. The Cultural Revolution, however, forced him to immigrate, and he became a political refugee in the United States in 1967.
He was schooled in Western music, and the recordings echo strains of 19th century romantic violin compositions. With titles like Rondo, Madrigal and Sonata, the listener will immediately "tune into" classical dance forms, tonal melodies and, rarely, dissonance — there is nothing ground-breaking here. But like the beloved British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ma drew thematic material from a rich heritage of folk melodies of his native land. The exuberant "Dragon Lantern Dance" (1953) and beautiful Gaoshan Suite (1973), for example, reflect Ma's intent to create art music while preserving ancient melodies. His work contributed greatly to China's 20th century cultural landscape, one that was nearly obliterated during his own lifetime.
The commitment of Hsiao-mei Ku and Ning Lu to this music is evident in their performances. Beside Ms. Ku's flawless violin technique, she incorporates what she describes as an "erhu-style," lending an element of authenticity. Slides into notes and voice-like bowing remind me of the baroque messa di voce ("Lamersary" from Tone Poem of Tibet, 1941), and execution of ornamentation, like the chirping of a bird ("Mountain Song," 1953), yield images of cinematic color. With elegant, silky bow changes and ribbons of nuanced sound, she renders sweetness to slow pieces ("Melody" amd "Ballade," 1952). Ning Lu, often providing simple accompaniment, skillfully highlights watery and percussive effects, as if Ma imagined the sound of the traditional zither-like instrument, the Guzeng ("Dance of Autumn Harvest," 1944)
The heart and energy conveyed by the players, artistic cover photographs, and instructive notes by Keith Anderson and Su Xia (translated by Ding Shaoyan) make for an album set worthy of chamber music lovers and students of Asian American studies. Finally, the romantic will discover a narrative thread woven through the pieces that Hsiao-mei Ku and Ning Lu skillfully stitched together — a musical journey fraught with unseen challenges.
The recordings were made possible by grants from Duke University and the University of Utah.