Corrections or additions?
This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the
May 2, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Raritan River Music: A Moveable Feast
We can’t be sure that savvy concertgoers immediately
think of guitarists Michael Newman and Laura Oltman and their Raritan
River Festival when they hear the term "adventurous
In any event, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and
(ASCAP) and Chamber Music America (CMA) link Newman, Oltman, and their
annual music festival with pushing out the frontiers of concert
In 1999 the Raritan River Festival won an ASCAP-CMA award for
programming. Now in its 12th season, the unusual festival presents
varied musical offerings at inviting rural settings in Hunterdon and
Warren counties on Saturday evenings in May. For those who cannot
easily escape to the country, attending a Raritan River Festival
is a surprisingly close approximation of a getaway weekend.
This year’s Raritan River Festival concerts cover a large musical
swathe in both geography and time. Music from China presents
Chinese music Saturday, May 5, in the park-like setting of the
Mills in Stockton. On Saturday, May 12, the American Virtuosi of
Opera Theatre perform music from the time of Louis XIV at the Stanton
Reformed Church. On Saturday, May 19, the Corigliano Quartet
music from the string quartet literature by Haydn and Schumann with
the New Jersey premiere of "Fugitive Star," composed in 2000
by Augusta Read Thomas, a Grammy winner and composer-in-residence
of the Chicago Symphony. And on Saturday, May 26, soprano Julianne
Baird and violinist Jennifer Orchard join the Newman and Oltman guitar
duo in a program of both Old and New World music from the Spanish
empire. All concerts begin at 7:30 p.m.
The first performing group in this year’s festival, Music from China,
has itself won the Adventurous Programming Award of ASCAP-CMA.
director Susan Cheng describes the ensemble’s Prallsville Mills
as "traditional music from the four corners of China."
"There’s a lot of regional music of folk origin," says Cheng.
The program includes music from Henan, in north central China,
in the east, Gwangdong in the south, and inland Jiangnan, south of
the Yangtze. "There’s even music from Mongolia," Cheng says.
"Because the concert is at a mill, we’re including pieces evoking
nature." She singles out "The Fisherman’s Night Song,"
a classical piece from Shandong, and "Birds in the Forest"
from southern China.
The "Forest" piece "is a Cantonese style melody and it
follows local speech patterns," says Cheng. "That happens
a lot in folk music: the contours of the music are very much affected
by the speech. The Cantonese dialect has nine tones so the music is
flowing and melodic. The progressions are stepwise; there are no big
jumps. There are lots of ornaments — microtonal slides and grace
"The `Song of Henan,’" Cheng says, "is a contrast to
music. The musical material is taken from local operatic music. It
also relates to the spoken language and reflects the way people speak.
There are big slides and a lot of exaggeration in the music; the
are stressed. There is a big difference between northern and southern
Chinese dialects. They speak slower in the south; it’s a little like
a southern drawl in the United States."
The main instruments in the concert are the erhu, a bowed instrument
with two-strings, held vertically on the lap of the player; various
flutes including the xiao (the x is pronounced sh), a vertical flute,
the dizu, a transverse flute, and the xun, a clay globular flute that
resembles an ocarina and has a 7,000 year history; the yangqin, a
hammered dulcimer; and the zheng (roughly pronounced jeng), a
zither with moveable bridges. In addition, there is enough percussion
to set the mood; Chinese opera selections, for example, imply a gong.
The Mongolian piece falls in a category distinct from the rest of
the program. It is played on the zhonghu (jong-gu), a deeper pitched
relative of the erhu which imitates the Mongolian horsehead fiddle,
whose sound is cello-like. The piece features trills, and a wide
that Chen says imitates Mongolian throat singing. "In Mongolian
music," says Chen, "there’s always the rhythm of horses
across the grassland. We add woodblocks and horsebells or sleigh
With a somewhat different program, Music from China
appeared at Richardson Auditorium in 1998. Reviewing that concert
for Classical New Jersey, I observed that the music was
accessible, exotic enough to be interesting, but requiring no leaps
into the unknown."
Although both the Richardson and Prallsville Mills concerts limit
themselves to traditional Chinese music, Music from China supports
contemporary Chinese music through its annual premiere works series
at New York’s Merkin Concert Hall. Since 1986 the group has
and performed 70 new works by 44 composers.
Susan Cheng founded the ensemble in 1984. At the time she was a
in Rockefeller University’s Neurophysiology Department. When the
closed she decided to work full time on Music from China.
Cantonese, Cheng was born in 1947. Her parents, with their four
fled to Hong Kong in 1949 at the time of the Communist takeover in
China. The family emigrated to the United States in 1956, when Cheng
was nine. She grew up in New York City’s Chinatown, and graduated
from Barnard College with a degree in biology. She speaks, reads,
and writes Chinese. "I have the best of both worlds," she
told U.S. 1 (September 30, 1998) prior to the company’s Richardson
performance. "I have retained my Chinese culture, but I was
up as an American."
In recent years, Music from China has increased its touring activity,
spreading out across the country to California. A high profile program
was a concert at the Freer Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution
in Washington, D.C., where cellist Yo-Yo Ma was guest soloist in an
80-minute commissioned piece by Zhou Long for cello and Chinese
Another Music from China innovation, now in its second year, is
both private and group lessons on traditional instruments at a
school located on Henry Street in New York. The company continues
to offer outreach programs for children. Among them is a children’s
orchestra at the Union Chinese School in Westfield.
Future plans include collaborations with two other organizations.
Working with the Meet the Composers-New Residencies program, it will
present "The Floating Box: a Story of Chinatown." Drawing
on oral histories from Chinatown, composer Jason Kao Hwang has
a score that mixes Chinese and western instruments; to pipa and erhu
he has added tuba, saxophone, and percussion. The premiere coincides
with the reopening of New York’s renovated Asia Society Building in
With New York City’s Vineyard Theater, Music from China is putting
together a family musical based on Emily Arnold McCully’s children’s
story "Beautiful Warrior." Set to open next January, the
uses a synthesizer, as well as Chinese instruments and percussion.
Music from China is becoming a musical melting pot where Chinese and
western traditions blend. "At the Merkin Premiere series,"
says Cheng "we’ve worked with non-Chinese composers in the last
few years. Last year there were two Americans writing for Chinese
instruments for the first time. We’re interested in working with
who represent different perspectives. A non-Chinese person will use
instruments in different ways. Their impressions are related to their
own musical traditions. It’s not surprising to hear sounds of American
folk music, American fiddling, and American jazz in these pieces."
Simultaneously, Chinese music is finding its way into American
Witness this handful of recent events: Pianist Lang Lang, who, with
the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, performed at New Brunswick’s State
Theatre, and made his debut at Carnegie Hall in late April, was
in advance by National Public Radio; it emerges that he improvises
at the piano with his father, a master musician on the erhu.
The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra in early April featured Bun-Ching
Lam’s "Song of P’ip’a," a concerto for the lute-like
Chinese pipa, on a program with Bright Sheng’s suite "China
Sheng’s "Silver River," an opera based on Chinese folk
appeared on concert stages in Charleston last spring, and in
in April. For May, 2002, at Carnegie Hall, Yo-Yo Ma has assembled
a team of western and Chinese musicians to perform Asian music, as
well as commissioned pieces in a three-concert series that he calls
"The Silk Road Project." One reader reports listening to a
Chinese street musician perform on a two-stringed instrument,
the erhu, in the pedestrian tunnel near Penn Station.
Still, the big splash of Chinese music in America comes through Ang
Lee’s award-winning movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,"
where Yo-Yo Ma performs in Tan Dun’s score. "It’s good that it
won Academy Awards," says New Yorker Susan Cheng. "When they
see that movie, a lot of westerners are hearing Chinese instruments
for the first time. It’s a first encounter brought about by a popular
movie. In the past Americans would have heard Chinese music only in
a Chinese restaurant." Then she continues, highlighting the
programming of her life by sounding like a quintessential New Yorker.
"Some of that," she says of the elevator-style background
music in certain Chinese restaurants, "is schlocky stuff."
— Elaine Strauss
Prallsville Mills, Route 29, Stockton, 908-213-1100. "Music of
Silk & Bamboo." $17; $10 students & seniors. Saturday, May
5, 7:30 p.m.
Festival , Stanton Reformed Church, Stanton, 908-213-1100.
May 12, 7:30 p.m.
Old Greenwich Presbyterian Church, Bloomsbury, 908-213-1100.
May 19, 7:30 p.m.
Clinton Presbyterian Church, Clinton, 908-213-1100. Saturday, May
26, 7:30 p.m.
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