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When it comes to programming rare and unusual orchestral music in Raleigh, NCSU's Randolph Foy is hard to beat. And for whole concerts of rare and unusual orchestral music, Foy's occasional festivals, which generally involve his two orchestras - the Raleigh Civic Symphony Orchestra and the Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra - are definitely the places to be. Yes, one can hear new music from time to time elsewhere, but marketing considerations tend to limit the amount thereof in any given program. Foy programs music he loves, and he doesn't seem to give a hoot about the revenue side. But - wonder of wonders! - the people come! And so it was on the afternoon of April 18, in Stewart Theatre, when his large orchestra (68 or so players) undertook to present the first of two concerts being given this spring that celebrate "Voices of Asia and the Pacific," concerts that feature music by composers more often talked about than heard, in this neck of the woods. But before we got to works by Yuzo Toyama (b.1931), Lou Harrison (1917-2003), Tan Dunn (of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame, b.1957), Bright Sheng (b.1955), and the Old Man of the first batch, Colin McPhee (1900-64), the large crowd was entertained by some hypnotic, minimalistic, traditional drumming, courtesy of six members - William Barry, Mari Bathrick, Roger Claise, Rocky Iwashima, Yoko Iwashima, and Hiroshi Kishimine - of Triangle Taiko, which managed to jolt the mostly Western audience out of its presumably mostly Western mindset and paved the way for some of the "strange" sounds that were to come. A bit of yelling, a bit of bell-ringing, and a whole lot of pounding on various drums produced some mighty noise that shook the hall and everyone in it as if a freight train had decided to take a little detour straight through the student center.
It's a safe bet that some in attendance wondered what they'd gotten themselves into..., but as it happened, there were certain characteristics of the drum piece, listed in the program as "Yatai Bayashi," that would recur from time to time during the rest of the program, the components of which were thoroughly documented in Foy's informative notes. For example, the first work played by the orchestra, Toyama's Rhapsody, begins with wood blocks, wielded by the brass section. The piece, written in 1960 for use as an encore, seemed, at first hearing, a bit of a pastiche, and indeed it is based on a series of folksongs, variously presented. In places, it was as insistent as the drumming had been.
The great Lou Harrison, who more than any other American composer I can think of merged Pacific cultures with Western music, was represented by the scherzo movement of his Third Symphony (1937-82). This is the guy who wrote pieces involving real (as opposed to synthetic) gamelan orchestras combined with conventional "classical" instruments. There was a tie to NC in the movement's three dance episodes: the opening Reel was composed in Black Mountain as an homage to Henry Cowell. In the selection played, there are strong Asian influences, in keeping with the program's overall theme. And yes, composing the work really did take him all the time shown in the dates given above.
Tan Dunn's Orchestral Theatre O merges music from both worlds (as it were), too, but it begins with its feet firmly planted overseas as the composer uses conventional instruments to "convey the sense of another culture," as the composer writes (quoted in the program notes). Gradually, the piece becomes more "Western," but not in the sense many mainline listeners might have guessed - the suggestions are of Stravinsky in his "primitive" mode and of Berg and Schoenberg.
Following the intermission, GuZheng (lute) virtuosa Jennifer Chang gave a solo that helped reorient the audience to "pure" Asian sounds as the drummers had done at the outset. Since she figures also in the second concert of this double-header (to be given on 4/25), it served as a preview, too. Her bio reveals that she is one of the great artists in her field, so we are richly blessed to have not one but two chances to hear her in the Triangle.
The finale of Bright Sheng's China Dreams (1992-5), titled "The Three Gorges of the Long [Yangtze] River," is basically a set of three tone poems depicting what must be an awesome river trip. The music evoked memories of Glass' "water" piece, "Itaipu," but with radically different ethnicity; the sounds created by the conventional instruments transported the audience to a distant place.
The grand finale was Canadian-born Colin McPhee's Tabuh-Tabuhan (1936), the oldest score given (aside from the traditional selections). It was radical in its time and remains so, for the composer's evocation of a gamelan orchestra with two pianos (here brilliantly played by Meredith's Kent Lyman and Frank Pittman) was among the earliest "ethnic" crossover pieces to enter the repertory. It's 68 years old now, and to these ears it seemed every bit as magical as it did when I first heard it when I was 12(!). Indeed, this is one of a handful of pieces that shaped me as a music lover and, eventually, as a critic, for it literally opened my ears to works that departed from the sometimes-restrictive constraints of conventional programming. As noted before, Foy's work is not driven by marketing considerations, and that's a plus, given the norm nowadays.
Throughout the afternoon, the musicians played with astonishing skill and commitment, and the commitment carried them through occasional patches of perhaps questionable intonation or ensemble. Without access to the scores, who's to say for sure? And sometimes it really doesn't matter - sometimes (and this was one of those times) it's the music that counts most.
To hear McPhee's Nocturne, Harrison's Suite (arguably his best-known work), Sheng's "Postcards" (from China), and works by Toshiro Mayuzumi and ZhanHao He, and to experience the Chinese lute in an ensemble setting, and to savor a rare performance by members of UNC's gamelan ensemble outside Chapel Hill, travel just as far as NCSU for concert II of the "Voices of Asia and the Pacific" festival, listed in our calendar.