Composer Conversations and Dialogues, Beijing Music Festival

Concert presenters often describe music programming as a conversation among composers, but this year’s Beijing Music Festival has spun that stock saying into a sanctioned theme. By pairing two well-known figures in China with their colleagues in the west, the BMF set out to explore connections – intended or otherwise – in composition across different cultures.

The first, entitled Tan Dun in Dialogue with John Cage, was by default something of a one-sided affair. Tan’s student days in New York found more inspiration from Cage than from his classes – attention that the I Ching-loving Cage was quick to return. With the BMF’s 15th anniversary overlapping with the Cage centenary, the China Philharmonic Orchestra had just the excuse to juxtapose the two composers, with Tan on the podium.

Much like Cage, Tan has been hailed as a visionary and derided as a charlatan, and last Sunday’s concert at the Poly Theatre had a bit of both. In conducting the China premieres of Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis and, of all things, 4’33” for full orchestra, Tan revealed the limitations in crossing cultures. Atlas had everything in place except the spontaneity, the effect of 4’33” rather diminished by a four-minute preface on the importance of silence.

Of Tan’s two world premieres, Atonal Rock n’ Roll Overture sounded suspiciously similar to the first movement of his Violin Concerto from 2009, itself a reworking of Out of Peking Opera from 1994. His Concerto for Orchestra, while being upfront about its connections to his 1995 opera Marco Polo, was also a far more substantive piece. Tan’s connection with Cage notwithstanding, Sunday’s concert seemed to channel a different composer. For someone conducting his own music – much of which reworked from earlier, more interesting pieces – the model who came to mind was Stravinsky.

The London Sinfonietta’s pairing of Chen Qigang with George Benjamin on Wednesday evening was a rather different affair. Held at The Orange, a multi-use facility at Sanlitun Village, a prominent shopping mall, the concert aimed to bring prickly, uncompromising music to the masses. And for the most part, it did, with dozens of people watching and listening on a big screen outside.

What either Chen or Benjamin had in common with Harrison Birtwistle’s thorny Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum or Oliver Knussen’s Songs Without Voices was anybody’s guess. But Chen’s Extase II, with its solo oboe mimicking a rustic Chinese suona, and Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill, a concert opera based on the Pied Piper legend, despite their contrasting subject matter and the composers’ divergent backgrounds, were cut from the same cloth. With similar extended harmonies and timbral richness, the fingerprints of their mutual teacher Olivier Messiaen were everywhere apparent.

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