Bright Sheng Thread

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Bright Sheng Thread

Postby pianoman » Tue Nov 11, 2014 10:48 pm

This is a 2014 disc released by Naxos of three works composed by Bright Sheng. Somewhat surprisingly to me, Sheng has a fairly large catalogue of works that are readily available. This disc is the 6th album of Sheng's music released on the Naxos label alone.


This album is, quite probably, the most Asian CD I have ever owned. It consists of three orchestral works composed by a Chinese composer, performed by the Hong Kong Philharmonic with Sheng conducting, and featuring five soloists who are all Asian, two of whom play traditional Chinese instruments, the sheng (mouth organ, no relation) and the pipa (plucked lute instrument). The soloists are: Hui Li, pipa; Tong Wu, sheng; Trey Lee, cello; Sa Chen, piano; and Pius Cheung, marimba.

The fist work, Song of Dance and Tears, was written in 2003 and revised in 2013. In the liner notes, Sheng states that this work is inspired by the folk music he heard while visiting the areas of the Silk Road "within the contemporary Chinese border." This is apparently a collection of separate "songs," yet there is only one track division. Much of this work sounds vaguely latin. The pipa is plucked in a tremelo style like Spanish guitar. The piano is used largely percussively or ornamentally. The sheng sounds a little like an accordian.

The second work is my favorite on this disc. It is essentially a concerto for marimba :lol:, and is performed by my new favorite Asian classical musician Pius Cheung. Shockingly, it was actually commissioned by the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra in 2004 for a different marimba player named Evelyn Glennie. The marimba wanders wistfully and cross-currently over a soft, reflective orchestra, with just a hint of sadness, then builds gradually to a semi-frantic allegro non troppo as the orchestra begins more and more to assume the role of sound effects generator. This strange brew simmers down before boiling over and you get a recapitulation of the first texture.

The third piece lends its name to the album, the Blazing Mirage. In the liner notes, Sheng writes that it is inspired by a site called the Dunhuang Caves that date back to the 4th century. The caves apparently contain the greatest collection of Buddhist art and culture ever discovered, as well as documents and frescos that relate to other religions such as Taoism, Nestorianism, and even Judaism, in several languages. They also contained music written in a lost but reconstructed system of notation. The "Blazing Mirage" comes from the legend of the inspiration for the first cave. A buddhist monk had a vision of "a thousand Buddhas glittering in golden lights."

The Blazing Mirage is essentially a one-movement cello concerto. It begins with a long solo cello "recitative," almost three minutes before the orchestra plays a single note. This work conveys a feeling of mystery, portent, antiquity. Of the three pieces on this disc, it is probably the most serious and the most "refined" in the sense of appealing to contemporary musical tastes. It does not build to a climax the way that you might expect from a Western composer, but is instead broad, inconclusive, laterally-conceived. The cellist here, Trey Lee, is actually quite good. His playing stands out on this disc.

The only comment I want to add here is that Sheng is working in a long contemporary tradition of appending stories and texts to a work. This is almost de rigueur these days, but it brings up an issue I have with Asian composers that have been accepted and allowed to create in the West. In its essence, music is sound organized into patterns. Ultimately, the inspiration or textual justification for a piece of music should not take the place of the music itself. The work must compel musically, not politically or theoretically. If Asians are ever going to create their own musical traditions, Asian composers must one day stake a claim to organized sound in the abstract.
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Re: Bright Sheng "The Blazing Mirage"

Postby pianoman » Fri May 24, 2019 11:47 pm

I'm making a deliberate decision to spend more time in the "composers" section of this website, despite my screen name. Here is an article about Sheng that appeared last year in an arts and culture magazine in Oregon. Half biography and interview, half promotion for works being performed. Around 2016, Sheng produced an opera version of the 18th century Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber, with Asian-American playwright David Henry Hwang co-writing the libretto. This website has about ten minutes of excerpts from the opera: ... o-gallery/

Article is here (a few good links to some audio, including the work for marimba and orchestra reviewed above): ... -emissary/

Bright Sheng interview: cross-cultural emissary
The Shanghai-born American composer, whose music is featured at Chamber Music Northwest this weekend, explores and extends Chinese music traditions
JULY 20, 2018


Bright Sheng is a pianist, conductor, and composer of music in various genres, including opera, orchestral, and chamber music. He’s also a teacher and musicologist, having studied both Eastern and Western music extensively. His resume includes heavy-duty recognition, such as the Guggenheim Fellowship and the MacArthur “Genius” award.

This weekend, as part of its Behind the Cultural Revolution series, Chamber Music Northwest presents two performances of Sheng’s opera The Silver River and other compositions. I spoke to him last week.

Bright Sheng

Born in Shanghai, Sheng was nearly ready for music school when the Red Guard took away his piano and sent him to the the province of Qinghai in Eastern Tibet. Fortunately, the seven years he spent there were not wasted. His hosts found out that he could play the piano (the only piano there), and he became the local musician and entertainer. With no teacher or books, he taught himself music theory and made an intensive study of the local folk music. After the Cultural Revolution, he made up for lost time. He got a B.A. at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, left for the U.S. and earned a doctorate in composition from Columbia University where one of his mentors was Leonard Bernstein.

The name, “Sheng,” means “grand,” and “Bright” is the actual translation of his Chinese name, “Liang.” He explained with a chuckle, “I didn’t really want a Western name, so I chose ‘Bright’ and I think it helped with my career because it sticks.” He’s lived up to his name.

Sheng believes that the next hundred years will bring much more cross-cultural music, that the lines between musical genres will be even more blurred than they are now, and that things will merge naturally. “I have a theory that I didn’t get a chance to practice myself, but ideally, all races should just mix, and that will erase the racial and political tensions. The U.S. is the foremost country doing that. You know, interracial marriage is not a big deal anymore. But it still is other places.

Sheng acknowledges that a side-effect of this merging will be the loss of some of the unique elements of certain cultures. He talked about how with the influx into Hong Kong of people from the mainland, the demand for food has changed and the authentic Cantonese cuisine has started to blend, as has the Cantonese language. But now you can get authentic Cantonese food in Beijing! It’s all a matter of demand. It takes an effort to preserve valued elements of the old cultures. It is an effort that engaged him as a teenager during the Cultural Revolution, and engages him still as a musicologist.

As he did in Silver River, Bright Sheng selected the well known playwright David Henry Hwang as his co-librettist for his full length opera, The Dream of the Red Chamber. The opera premiered in San Francisco in 2016 to public and critical acclaim. The opera is based on what he called the most beloved novel in Chinese history, written by Cao Xueqin in the mid 18th Century during the Qing Dynasty. Scholars in China, known as Redologists, can spend their whole lives studying this book.

Sheng recounted how these scholars scrutinized the performances he conducted in China. “A whole fleet of Redologists came without letting me know. They followed us on our tour in China. Then they said they wanted to have a public symposium on the opera and the Dream of the Red Chamber. It was the five major media, TV and all that, and I was really nervous!”

Sheng said that in the end, they all agreed that the opera was okay. They acknowledged that Sheng and Hwang and changed it a bit, but it was a good story and the spirit of the novel was still there. “Most important,” said Sheng, “they were moved. One high-up scholar said in the beginning he was analyzing it, but by a quarter of the way into it, he was totally absorbed by the story and the music. He said, ‘I didn’t care. By the end I was touched.’”
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