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The Phoenix

Red Silk Dances. Tibetan Swing. The Phoenix. H'un (Lacerations).

Bright Sheng, piano. Shana Blake Hill, soprano. Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz, cond.

Naxos 8.559610, 70:46.

Review by Steve Koenig

This is an excellent release in Naxos' American Composers series. Sheng, born in China, protégé of Leonard Bernstein, is a master orchestrator. He deftly uses eastern and western elements so that his compositions have complete unity, without any whiff of facile chinoiserie used by so many composers of all ethnicities.

He described the Red Silk Dances as "a capriccio for piano and orchestra," and it does have the energy of that form. Rhythm, colors, excitement abound: these are Sheng's stock in trade. Following a piano and flute interlude, the work develops with strings and angular wit, then impressionistic piano, ending with weird chimes and a march. Without the least disrespect to this performance, as I listen, I wonder what Dudamel could make the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra achieve with such a piece.

Tibetan Swing uses a timpani tattoo. My hips sway along with the grinding, low basses, first slashed by drums, then stroked by harp, next held aloft by winds, then snaked by French-sounding reeds.

The title track here, The Phoenix, is a modern aria for soprano and orchestra, running twenty-four minutes. With references to Eden, The Ganges, Arabia, the phoenix legend is universalized. Shana Blake Hill's enunciation is so clear one barely needs the text, which (thank you, Naxos) is printed in the booklet. I'd like to hear what she could do with Barber's Knoxville.

The interlacing of text and music is exemplary. The only debit here is the stilted edit and translation of the text, done by Sheng himself, more narrative than poetic:

"In Paradise, when thou wert born in the first rose, beneath the Tree of Knowledge, thou receivedst a kiss, and thy right name was given thee -- thy name, MUSIC."

The disc closes with H'un (Lacerations): In Memoriam 1966-76, a reflection on Mao's Cultural Revolution. (I remember all too clearly, in a trip to China shortly before the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre, meeting the victims of the Cultural revolution: the daughter of a violinist who had his fingers crushed and was forced to do farmwork, and a dancer whose toes were broken for embracing Western forms.)

It's not programmatic in a literal way, but it is a tone poem. Halfway through its twenty-two minute length, a quiet presents itself, hushed, then terrifyingly still and acrid massed strings, as moving in its own way as Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.

There is another performance of H'un on New World which I haven't heard, but I've read that the difference in audio makes this version a clear first choice. The three other works are world première recordings.

At Naxos' price of less than nine dollars, it would be a disservice to deny yourself these works.

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