Having brought his Taipei-based Little Giant Chinese Chamber Orchestra to Vancouver, produced Taiwanese concerts for local erhu virtuoso Lan Tung’s Sound of Dragon Ensemble, and led the all-star musicians of Turning Point Ensemble through a tour of mainland China, conductor Chih-Sheng Chen knows a thing or two about cultural exchange. And he’s eager to expand his knowledge, starting with a concert this week that marks the first meeting between Sound of Dragon’s intercultural players and the mostly Asian-born performers in San Francisco’s Melody of China ensemble.
It’s not only the sonic possibilities that have Chen excited.
“This year, I am working even harder to have Chinese and western instruments combine and to have international collaboration,” he explains in a telephone interview from a Vancouver friend’s home. “The market in China is very good.”
“There are many opportunities,” adds Tung, who’s listening in on speakerphone. Sound of Dragon’s leader adds that she and Chen will take her local players to mainland China later this year. This Thursday’s concert at the Western Front will feature some of the repertoire they’ll play on that tour, with the local show including world premieres of works by Dorothy Chang, Itamar Erez, and Yuan-Chen Li.
Chang’s Timekeepers might well be the most challenging, switching as it does between several complex time signatures—a rarity in Chinese music, although not in contemporary composition.
Erez, an Israeli-born multi-instrumentalist based in Vancouver, will contribute Migrant Voices, which touches on his own Mediterranean heritage as well as the westernmost extensions of the fabled Silk Road.
“Itamar’s music is more groove-based,” Tung notes. “So we have to internalize the pulse in a different way, and make it pretty, like, groovy! It has a more Middle Eastern flavour in the melody as well, so it’s quite a different style for us.”
From Chen’s description it sounds like Reminiscences 2, by Taiwan-born, Portland, Oregon–based Li, might provide the show’s emotional heart. “She wrote this piece for her grandmother,” the conductor explains. “Maybe it’s about how her grandmother went to Taiwan from China because of the political situation, the war. I think it was in 1949. And you can hear many sounds, like knocking on the soundboard of the plucked instruments so that it sounds very similar to machine guns. You can hear the war atmosphere.”
“But in contrast to that,” Tung adds, “there’s a kind of humming vocal in the beginning and end sections. I think it’s from a melody that her grandmother would hum when she was in her old age, suffering from dementia. It’s a very emotional piece, with the composer trying to make sense of what her grandmother remembered.”
Sound of Dragon Ensemble and Melody of China perform at the Western Front on Thursday (May 30).