To write a concerto for an indigenous instrument may be an obvious way to create a multicultural piece, but it is not the easiest. Most folk instruments don’t have the power to compete with an orchestra, although electronics can help; most also involve tunings that can’t mesh with the compromises of the well-tempered Western scale.
So the practical thing to do is to use the orchestra as a kind of backdrop in front of which the indigenous instrument does its thing, and that is pretty much what Jin Hi Kim, Henry Cowell, and Reza Vali did in the pieces Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project programmed in a fascinating concert Friday night.
Cowell’s Concerto No. 1 for Koto and Orchestra (1961) is an attractive and melodic work, a gentle handshake between Eastern patterns of melody and Western patterns of harmony. The long Japanese lute was sensitively played by Masayo Ishigure, spectacular in an orange kimono.
The other two concertos were world premieres. Kim’s ‘Eternal Rock II features a set of five barrel drums, played with ferocious rhythmic concentration by Gerry Hemingway, using not only the drums but the brass rims. The drums are mostly inaudible when the orchestra is playing, so the two forces alternate. Some of the orchestral writing sounds like movie music, but the way that Kim extends the effect of the drums by additional percussionists ringed around the stage is striking.
Vali, a composer from Iran, wrote his concerto ‘Toward That Endless Plain for the Persian ney, a recorder or flute played with an unusual technique that expressively surrounds the musical pitch with an exhalation of air. This work uses the orchestra more interactively as a part of a scenario based on a Persian mystical poem. The piece is resourcefully made and compelling in effect; the ney part was played with passion and imagination by Khosro Soltani.
The orchestra, which under Rose’s vigilant direction played superbly, was finally the focus in Tan Dun’s ‘Yi, which may be this controversial composer’s richest and most satisfying piece. In it, he transcribes and reimagines the sounds, textures, and processes of non-Western instruments and music for modern orchestra so brilliantly that the orchestra itself becomes a vast, versatile, and authentic indigenous instrument.
-Richard Dyer, The Boston Globe
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