East Meets West Program Notes

by Claudia Jensen and Bradley Clem

Gateways (2018 ‒ 2019)                                                                                                           Dorothy Chang

b. Winfield, Illinois, 1970

Philharmonia Northwest’s “East Meets West” concert invites us to experience music of different cultures through many prisms, a continuation of our season-long exploration of the meanings of place as expressed through music. Dorothy Chang’s “Gateways” was commissioned by PNW and premieres today; below, the composer tells us about the origins of her work, a double concerto written for the Piano and Erhu Project  (PEP). In this composition, as she explains, her approach was grounded in her own lived experiences ‒ a personal musical response that reflects, at the same time, universal feelings of cultural identifications.

Dorothy writes: I wrestled for some time with how I might address the issue of “East Meets West,” especially given the solo instruments’ highly distinct and disparate sonic characteristics, performance practices, and musical traditions.  Gradually, the piece evolved from a patchwork of musical fragments, moments, and memories gathered from my own multicultural experiences as a first-generation Chinese-American, a Western expatriate living in Taiwan and, most recently, an immigrant to Canada. Each place I’ve lived in has been home, and yet in each setting I always identified as the ‘other,’ never truly a native.  I explore this sense of otherness in the concerto by incorporating musical materials that are purposefully borrowed from various musical languages, cultures, or time periods. Woven into the three movements are references to a Chinese pop song, a children’s musical rhyme, opulent Romanticism, minimalism, and other influences both subtle and not so subtle.  

The lyrical and flowing opening movement, “a letter to home,” features a primary theme built upon the first five notes of a Chinese pop song of the same title.  Popular during the 1990s, when I was an exchange student in Nanjing, China, the tune is reframed here within a context that shows influences of Ravel, Stravinsky, and American minimalism.  

The title of the nostalgic second movement borrows from the library term “slow fire,” which refers to the gradual embrittlement of paper resulting from acid decay.  The visual inspiration behind this movement is the handful of old faded and yellowed photographs and letters that are the only remaining artifacts from my Chinese heritage. This idea of decay extends to memory and to my connection to the past and to my family’s cultural roots, reflected in the music with a slow, haunting erhu melody that slightly detunes in places, and consonant harmonies with Chopin-esque gestures that either melt into or intensify with chromatic dissonance.

The final movement, “games,” is rhythmic and angular, sweeping through a variety of characters ranging from whimsical to furious.  The erhu and piano initially alternate short statements based on a simple tune remembered from my childhood.  Gradually the playful motive transforms in numerous ways as the alternating statements continue to grow, develop, and eventually engage the entire orchestra.

The concerto’s title ‒ “Gateways” ‒ refers to a line from a Tang dynasty poem that depicts a gateway as both an opportunity and a barrier, evoking a deep yearning for a faraway time, place, or memory:                   Heaven is high, earth wide; bitter between them flies my sorrow.

                  Can I dream through the gateway, over the mountain?

Although this concerto was inspired by my own personal history and experience, my hope is that it connects with the listener as a reflection on universal themes of isolation, loss, remembrance, and hope.

Scheherazade (1888)                                                                                                Nikolai Andreevich Rimsky-Korsakov

b. Tikhvin, Russia, 6/18 March, 1844

d. Lyubensk, Russia, 8/21 June, 1908

Our “East Meets West” theme has different implications in Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite Scheherazade (1888). In this work, a mythologized, exoticized, and wholly generic “East” is on display, although invoked by typically “Russian” compositional elements. Or, in other words, part of what makes so much 19th-century Russian music sound “Russian” is this deliberate mixture of “exotic” sounds, colors, and musical procedures.

In Scheherazade, Rimsky-Korsakov mines a very popular source of such exoticism, The Tales of Arabian Nights (or The Thousand and One Nights), which had fascinated European composers and artists from the time of its translation into Western languages, in the early 18th century, and especially in the 19th century, a period in which much attention was devoted to exploring national characteristics in music and the other arts. At the time Rimsky-Korsakov began his work on this piece, he was already enmeshed musically in the sounds of Central Asia. He was editing and completing the opera Prince Igor, which had been left unfinished at the death of his friend, the composer Alexander Borodin – this opera is set in the same sort of lush and evocative musical locale as Scheherazade.

Rimsky-Korsakov was quite clear about what he intended in Scheherazade: to present a “kaleidoscope of fairy-tale images and designs” but not to lay out a program or storyline, and he did not intend for any of the musical themes to represent specific characters. In fact, even though he originally gave titles to the four movements of the suite, he later removed the titles because he thought they were too specific, pointing too obviously in the direction of a predetermined storyline. There is one exception, however: the solo violin that, as the composer said, “delineates Scheherazade herself as telling her wondrous tales to the stern sultan.” So, like the literary source itself, Scheherazade is the thread that links the movements together. Her musical theme has many of the “exotic” markers common in Russian music: a sinuous, twisting melodic line (which, not at all coincidentally, is associated with a female character), and the use of unusual scales or intervals, all of which is invoked through melodies that are supported by ever-shifting orchestral colors.

The solo violin theme (generally accompanied by harp) appears at several points throughout the piece, each time functioning as a way to refocus the listener’s thoughts and introduce a shift in scene. The theme itself appears in many guises. For example, in the third movement, in an extended cadenza for the violin, Rimsky-Korsakov uses some very potent accompanying instruments, with oboe and English horn twining themselves around and into the violin solo. The choice of these double reed instruments is meant to evoke the exotic world of Scheherazade herself.  And, like all of Rimsky-Korsakov’s musical choices, his approach to instrumentation is deliberate – the vivid orchestral effects he creates are not simply decorative “orchestral color” dabbed onto the score at the last minute, but rather his instrumental choices are integral to the work. In his writing, themes are conceived in terms of specific instrumental sounds and colors, and could be performed by no other instrument.

Our concert today thus gives us an encompassing way to understand a range of compositional approaches associated with ideas of identity and place; when placed within the frame of our previous concerts this season, we discover a much broader frame in which we can comprehend the nuances of musical collaborations and collisions, appreciations and appropriations.