Music Monday: Sheng: Clarinet Concertino

So had things gone a little differently, I could have wound up studying with the composer of the piece we’re featuring today. Bright Sheng* has been on the composition faculty of the University of Michigan since 1995, and his presence there was one of the many things that attracted me to that program. Still, getting rejected didn’t change my musical tastes, and I still find Sheng’s music as compelling as ever. Born in Shanghai in 1955, Sheng got his first musical training at the age of four when his mother began teaching him piano. During the Cultural Revolution, he spent seven years serving as a pianist and percussionist in a provincial theatre in Qinghai [Wikipedia], where he also found time to study the region’s folk music. When the Revolution ebbed and the universities re-opened, Sheng enrolled in the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, studying there from 1978–82.

He then emigrated to New York City, pursuing advanced compositional studies with such luminaries as George Perle, Mario Davidovsky, and Leonard Bernstein. (He also studied music theory with the person who wrote the theory textbook I was taught from, which I think is super nifty.) From there, he rapidly established himself as a major figure in the new music world, with numerous high–profile commissions, performances, and awards, including a commission from the White House for a work to honor Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji at at official state dinner. In addition to his compositional activities, he maintains an active career as a pianist and conductor, and in addition to his faculty position, he has been composer-in-residence at a number of institutions, among them Chicago’s Lyric Opera and the New York City Ballet (where he was the first person ever to hold that position).

Even tho the term “concertino” usually refers to a work for soloist with orchestral accompaniment, Sheng’s clarinet concertino (1994) uses a simple string quartet as its backing ensemble instead. Written for David Schifrin and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the work is based around fragments of folk tunes from Sheng’s camp in the Cultural Revolution. Many Chinese folk traditions use pentatonic scales, but the Qinghai region uses a seven–note scale instead, and Sheng was curious whether using it in a work for Western instruments would make it “lose its Asian quality”. (Whether it does or not is left as a question for the listener.) The opening theme in the unaccompanied clarinet certainly seems to have something of the character of a folk song, even if it goes a hair wayward as it progresses. Delicate pizzicati in the strings soon grow to a stark, angular interjection, but this calms down quickly, leaving the clarinet to duet with the violin (or possibly viola) in a similar folkish manner. This duetting is soon taken over by the strings, and the tempo picks up as the counterpoint intensifies. Another calm interlude, this one rather longer, with ghostly harmonic tones from the strings before a convulsive breakdown launches another faster section. The motion is easygoing, but also somehow fumbling and irregular, even as it works its way to the sustained climax. The clarinet reaches a piercing trill in its highest register and the strings slump ever downwards, losing energy as they collapse back into tranquility.

Nimble burbles start the second movement, soon joined by agitated lines in the strings. The clarinet gradually succumbs to this agitation, and its interjections become increasingly disjointed and distressed. A slower middle section provides a chance to breathe, but it has the glassy–eyed character of one in shock, and the faster music is not long held at bay. Agitation is everywhere now, as the music tumbles and whirls in a pell-mell maelstrom of competing lines and directions. For a moment, it seems like it might be easing back into the more subdued opening, but the movement quickly spirals out of control again, ending with a few broken fragments and a frigid chord.

Ghostly held notes support a distant echo of the first movement’s melody at the start of the finale. The mood of uneasy remembrance is interrupted by a discordant outburst, but the only change is that the cello joins with the clarinet in humming memory. It is, instead, the clarinet that breaks the spell, shrieking runs announcing a harsh, relentless interlude before drifting back to a more distant place, now supported not by hollow pedal points but glistening, amorphous arpeggios. These eventually subside back to stillness, but the mood is warmer now, more full of life. There is a brief volley of the harsh music from before, but now it results in something more akin to a hearty, rustic dance, unrehearsed, perhaps, but full of mud-splattered enthusiasm. Another dreaming interlude follows, brimming with nostalgia and acceptance, and the music thins and thins. A whisper of melody; a final outburst; a long, low moan — then silence.

*Normally I like to keep non-Western names in their non-Western order, but Sheng changed changed his given name sometime after emigrating to the United States, and his online presence is unanimous in using the Western order, so I’m going to assume that that’s his preference and defer to it.