Washington Post, Style Section

Wednesday, October 24, 2001.



Bright Sheng, Illuminating Chinese Music’s Roots and Branches


By Joseph McLellan


Bright Sheng, a native of Shanghai, has lived in the United States since 1982, studied composition with Leonard Bernstein and writes music in which traditions of East and West form intriguing, unpredictable combinations.  In a lecture-demonstration titled “On Tradition and Creativity” Monday evening at the University of Maryland, Sheng (who was named yesterday as a recipient of a Macarthur Foundation “genius” grant) examined the roots of his art and the qualities that give Chinese music its unique flavor.  The program included performances-on Chinese and Western instruments-of some of his works that use folk melodies: Three songs for Pipa and Violoncello (1999) and Four Movements for Piano Trio (1990).

            Sheng was the pianist in the trio movements, with violinist Hasse Borup and cellist Amy Leung.  The most fascinating part of the program, however was when Wu Man played pipa, a four-stringed Chinese lute.  []

The earlier Four Movements, using only Western instruments, hinted less completely at a similar dialogue.  Before the performance, Sheng explained the pentatonic scales that are the basis of Chinese music and discussed the advantages of monophonic structure-one note at a time rather than chords or counterpoint, allowing the performers to take liberties, such as “bending” the pitch of a note that are forbidden in traditional Western styles.


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