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

early November.

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

Music From China, Raritan River Music Festival,

Prallsville Mills, Route 29, Stockton, 908-213-1100. "Music of

Silk & Bamboo." $17; $10 students & seniors. Saturday, May

5, 7:30 p.m.

American Virtuosi of Baroque Opera, Raritan River Music

Festival , Stanton Reformed Church, Stanton, 908-213-1100.


May 12, 7:30 p.m.

Corigliano Quartet, Raritan River Music Festival,

Old Greenwich Presbyterian Church, Bloomsbury, 908-213-1100.


May 19, 7:30 p.m.

Newman & Oltman Guitar Duo, Raritan River Music

Festival ,

Clinton Presbyterian Church, Clinton, 908-213-1100. Saturday, May

26, 7:30 p.m.

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