The subject of the December 1 program of Music for a Great Space was "East Meets West," and one could be forgiven if one thought that it may have given the series "wanderlust." Conflicts with Bel Canto's annual Christmas series meant abandoning the usual venue, Christ United Methodist Church on Holding Street. Temple Emanuel made their lovely and more intimate space available, but on Thursday, not the usual Friday night. The featured artists were the Amelia Piano Trio. They received widespread exposure as NPR's Young Ensemble in Residence in September 2003. That year the trio also toured Central Asia with Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road "East Meets West" program. The trio consists of pianist Rieko Aizawa, violinist Anthea Kreston, and cellist Jason Duckles. They were joined by an Asian musician they met on the tour with Yo-Yo Ma: Wang Guowei is one of the outstanding erhu soloists of his generation.
The erhu, a kind of violin, consists of two strings with a box-like body about the size of a pint of Häagen-Dazs ice cream. The front opening of the drum-like ebony or sandalwood case is covered with snake skin while the back is left open. The most striking difference between an erhu and a modern violin is that the erhu's bow is placed between the two strings. Considerable resin seems to be used, and the tension of the horse hairs in the bow seems less than for a Western bow. Sources agree that the erhu sounds very similar to a human voice and can imitate natural sounds such as birds and horses. While capable of playing merry lines, it is more often used for melancholy tunes. The erhu has been traced back to Mongolians during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) and, under the term Huqin, is mentioned in records of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD). Violinist Kreston, who has been active in the "historically-informed performance" movement, said such time spans bring a whole new perspective to the concept of "original" instruments!
Traditional timbre and a broad range of techniques were on display in the opening "Listening to the Pines for Solo Erhu" by Hua Yanjun (1893-1950). It was fascinating to watch the unusual bowing methods and Wang Guowei's tight control of pitch. The much thinner sound of the erhu was clear when the Amelia Trio joined their guest artist for the ensemble's own transcription of the slow movement of Bach's Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins, S.1043. The contrast was stark – the sound of the erhu was like a cold moonlit night contrasted with the warm and glowing sunset conjured by the fuller sound of the modern violin.
Two well established works from the French "Impressionists" made ideal companions for the "East Meets West" theme. The creativity of Debussy and Ravel was stimulated by the 1904 Asian Exhibition. Among their innovations and adaptations were the use of open tonalities and pentatonic melodies.
Debussy's Sonata for Cello and Piano received a superb performance by Duckles and Aizawa. This was the first of a planned series of six sonatas for different instruments but death claimed the composer after only three had been completed. The cellist's tonal palette was rich and his pizzicatos, set against the piano's impressionist sheen, were gorgeous. The second movement is memorable for the unusual technical tricks the cellist is called upon to perform; these include strumming pizzicatos and weird, high "whistling" harmonics.
In the Trio in a minor, Ravel makes use of Basque themes in the first movement, bases the second movement on a Malayan literary form called a pantoum, uses quasi-pentatonic melodies within a passacaglia, and toys with a kind of A Major/Lydian mode in the last movement. The Amelia Piano Trio gave a blazing performance that maximized colors while maintaining alert rhythms and stylish phrasing.
The best possible case for the use of erhu in modern music was made by composer Yang Yong (b.1954). His "River Songs" ("Da Shosho") for cello and erhu call for each instrument to wax rhapsodically in cadenzas while the other plays an ostinato. The full range of both instruments was wholly exploited. The piece was very well received by the audience and the subject of much favorable intermission comment.
For the encore, Wang Guowei, joined by Kreston and Duckles, played a traditional folksong, "The Dance of the Golden Snakes." Instead of returning to the Steinway, Reieko Aizawa joined in using finger chimes to emphasize the rhythm.