SHENG: Red Silk Dance (1999).* Tibetan Swing (2002). The Phoenix (2004).** H'un (Lacerations): In memoriam 1966-1976 (1988).
Bright Sheng (piano)*; Shana Blake Hill (soprano)**; Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz.
Naxos 8.559610 (B) TT: 70:46

China and chinoiserie. The work of Bright Sheng, a survivor of and refugee from Mao's Cultural Revolution, has usually focused on the synthesis of Chinese or Tibetan culture with that of Europe. Possessed of a tremendous talent that sometimes crosses over into brilliance, he is also terrifically uneven. Unlike his fellow expatriate Tan Dun, he has a sharp dramatic sense, an instinct for sure progression and climax. I would almost call him the Chinese Leonard Bernstein, in regard to his compositions. He has a feel for the vitality of "low" material and a love of strong rhythm and orchestral color. This music doesn't try to get you to blend your consciousness with placid surroundings. It wants you to feel.

I might as well get out of the way my least favorite first -- The Phoenix. For soprano and orchestra, it gets top billing on the disc. It's based on a Hans Christian Andersen story about the legendary bird of Araby . Conceived as a virtuoso showpiece for soprano, it's difficult as sin to perform. Unfortunately, I keep comparing it to extended poetic settings like Brahms's Alto Rhapsody, Schoenberg's Erwartung, or Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Compared to these, The Phoenix seems to me about as shapely as a bowlful of chili somebody's dumped on the sidewalk. Part of this may be due to the composer's failure to find a musical structure in the prose; the music wanders about in a daze, as if someone had whomped the composer with a 2x4 before he sat down to write. "Oriental" arabesques swoop about in an orchestral fabric I'm sure Sheng has made as colorful -- in an Impressionist sense -- as he can. However, he has daubed on so many colors so thickly, overall the texture becomes a muddy brown.

The first work to bring Sheng to general notice, H'un or Lacerations commemorates the victims of the Cultural Revolution. I've come to think of human history as bursts of civilization, fragile and transitory, punctuating long stretches of barbarity. England had its religious and civil wars bracketing the Age of Shakespeare. The United States (at least in Texas, where I live) seems determined to dive into its very own darkness. China, for centuries one of the highest cultures in the world (if you overlooked the misery of the poor and powerless), plunged into the horrors of Mao's Cultural Revolution, a hatred of all things Western and non-Mao, in order to dominate and regiment an elite political base. Millions died as a result. The music earns its title, a bag of sharp edges -- glass, wire, and razor blades. It falls into two large parts: an aural assault which collapses into exhaustion and a series of muffled cries, achieved through the unforgettable sound of muted strings playing fortissimo. Eventually, these die away to a single clarinet, ending the piece enigmatically. In some ways, I haven't heard a more conventional piece by Sheng. It lacks his usual strong profile, but it's still a poetic, moving work.

Tibetan Swing and Red Silk Dance both share Tibetan dance as their inspiration. Tibetan Swing intrigued me just by reading the title. However, it has nothing to do with Duke Ellington. It refers to Tibetan dancers who swoop up their long sleeves from the ground to overhead. Tibetan music is often heavily rhythmic and the steps involve stamping. Both pieces successfully blend Asian and Western elements -- the strong beats and emphasis on melody of Tibetan music and a vigorous, electrifyingly rough counterpoint from the West. At times, the music reminded me of early Stravinsky, although much more stark. Both pieces hammer at you and provide respite with long, serene passages, before ramping up again. For me, Red Silk Dance edges out Tibetan Swing, but preferring one to the other seems a mug's game. Both have a great chance of becoming classic works.

Schwarz and his Seattlonians do their usual good work. Everything is clear. The loud parts have a great deal of energy. If Schwarz has a flaw, it's his inability to make much of reflective passages. Sheng, a percussionist, not only pounds the ivories for all they're worth, he also manages to suggest quieter instruments like the flute and the pi' pa. Certainly, he knows what he wants from his music. Shana Blake Hill heroically tackles whatever fiendish challenge Sheng throws her way, but Sheng has given her very little with which to touch a listener. He should send her a roomful of flowers at least. Overall, one of the best releases in Naxos's Sheng mini-series.

S.G.S. (July 2010)