Huang Ruo assembled an exceptional group of young musicians for performances of three of his new compositions at Le Poisson Rouge in NYC on January 10th. The pieces demonstrated Ruo’s skills with different sets of instrumentation and musical conception, and unlike many nights at Poisson Rouge, the audience was listening attentively. Ruo proved particularly adept at drawing on influences from his native China, utilizing the latest contemporary classical compositional styles, and drawing out inventive and expressive sounds from the instrumentation.
Book of the Forgotten, a four-movement duo for clarinet and viola, accomplished a nuanced sense of conversation between the two contrasting instruments. The melodic material was mostly gestural in nature, whether longer tones subjected to pitch-bending inflections and dynamic changes or Eric Dolphy-esque abrasive flourishes in the clarinet. The exposed sound of the piece was handled well by both performers. I’ve never been a big clarinet fan, but Vasko Dukovski’s playing won me over. His tone had a depth and clarity that gave it a forceful presence, and his rather dramatic use of sudden changes in dynamics and strong articulations captivated my attention. I was entranced with Stephanie Griffin’s brooding viola sound in a melody in the lower register of her instrument in the third movement, and her ability to sit on dissonant harmonies was bold and subtle at the same time. Ruo drew sounds out of the clarinet and viola that brought to mind a recent zither performance I heard – in particular the pitch bends and sweeping melodic gestures, reflecting not just an imitation of sounds but a different conception to the composition. The final movement brought the two instruments together in more constant streams of sixteenth notes while maintaining the gestural character of the piece in its rhythms.
Performed by the Momenta Quartet, Ruo’s String Quartet No. 3: Calligraffiti started softly in the stratosphere and maintained an ethereal sound cloud quality throughout. Within this sound cloud, musical moments emerged from the different members of the quartet that gave the piece a real sense of shape, melody, and occasional abrasiveness. Ruo had a way of building tension and release into both short gestures and longer arcs that kept the music exciting. Unlike many conservatory-trained string players, Emilie-Anne Gendron was not afraid play her violin with more rugged, forceful, and daring articulations. While compositionally the emergence of the lower register of the quartet worked well, the speakers at Le Poisson Rouge gave too much of a boomy sound to the lower pitches, hindering the subtle qualities of the music a bit. It was impressive to hear Ruo compose with a very contemporary string style, and the Momenta Quartet brought a fresh sound and focused energy to the music that for my tastes sounded better than the stale cleanliness one hears from some well-established string quartets.
The excerpts from Ruo’s opera Dr. Sun Yat-sen performed displayed some of the challenges of the composer’s combination of contemporary classical with traditional Chinese elements. The opera is in Mandarin and Cantonese, and Ruo has composed versions for traditional Chinese instruments and Western orchestra. This performance featured three arias with a small ensemble of string quartet, piano, flute, clarinet, and bassoon. The woodwinds gave a nice earthy timbre to the music, but it seemed to me like the opera would go best with traditional Chinese instruments. Soprano Fang Tao Jiang captured the style of the composition well, with a lighter touch, thinner vibrato, and detailed attention to the nuanced inflections of the vocal line. As much as I enjoyed the sound of her voice, it didn’t quite seem to fit with the instrumentation supporting it. Tenor Laurence Broderick sounded too much like a European opera singer for this music, with too much power and force in his voice. It worked well at the dramatic high points, but otherwise sounded out of place. Singing in Mandarin and Cantonese without being a native speaker is a challenge I can appreciate, but given the nuance and inflection of the vocal lines, it seems that a command of the languages would be necessary to conveying the opera in the best light. Broderick was a great singer and I’m sure I’d enjoy hearing him perform other pieces; he just didn’t quite fit this composition. I make these criticisms with an understanding of the difficulties involved in putting on excerpts from a newly composed opera with a smaller necessity. Even with these issues, I could hear very promising elements in Ruo’s opera and would jump at the chance to hear it performed with a full orchestra.
Huang Ruo is achieving something new and exciting in music, and conveys a command of the latest developments in the classical tradition and the sounds and musical conceptions of his native China. The Momenta Quartet and Ensemble FIRE (that latter of which Ruo founded) were and exceptional cast of young performers full of energy and not stuck in well-worn ruts.
Some of Ruo’s compositions will be performed on Friday, January 27th at a concert titled Written on the Wind: New Music from China and New York, featuring both traditional Chinese and Western instruments. Ruo is a new voice in music with both solid compositional skill and inventive sounds not to be missed.
David Pearson is a saxophonist residing in NYC.