New music dynamo Ensemble Dal Niente presented a stirring program of music by Cambodian-American composer Chinary Ung at High Concept Laboratories in Chicago on Sunday, September 16, 2012. Fresh from their triumphant residency at the Darmstadt International Summer Course for New Music, at which they became the first group to receive the Kranichstein Music Prize, the concert was a benefit to help fund their 2012-13 concert season. Dal Niente percussionist Gregory Beyer organized and produced the event, which was an encore presentation of a concert originally offered as part of the Imagining Cambodia conference at Northern Illinois University.
Ung first came to the US in 1964 to pursue advanced study at Manhattan School of Music in clarinet performance. While there, he discovered a talent for composition and eventually received a doctorate from Columbia University under the guidance of Chou Wen-chung. Ung remained essentially in self-exile here during the Cambodian holocaust at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. This isolation stimulated a deep immersion into Cambodian music and arts, through which he became an important cultural voice for Cambodian people. Ung’s music conveys his own unique blend of Western musical abstractions and Eastern musical sounds. He was the first American recipient of the prestigious Grawemeyer Award (in 1989), among the many honors he has been accorded.
In his opening remarks, Beyer spoke eloquently about his belief in confluence and synchronicity as major factors in life’s experiences and his conviction that music has the power to convey human emotion. Beyer’s studies at Manhattan School of Music (Ung’s alma mater) were mentored by Steven Schick, who first introduced him to Ung’s music. Beyer currently teaches at Northern Illinois, where Ung held his first teaching position. Among the performers was Susan Ung, the composer’s wife and longtime musical collaborator, whom he met while at Northern Illnois. Mr. Ung is now a colleague of Schick at UC San Diego. These multi-faceted connections Beyer spoke of brought a palpable depth of conviction to the music performance that was to follow.
Beyer opened the concert with Cinnabar Heart (2009) for solo marimba with vocalizations. Cinnabar is an ancient red hue long associated in Buddhist culture with compassion — a perfect metaphor for this heartfelt music. Beyer’s strikes on the marimba were particularly resonant in the intimate space, the notes rang crystal clear while also vibrating the floor. He laid out a sparse melody with a distinctly Asian flavor. His vocalizations, drawn mainly from the sacred Pali language, consist more of syllables chosen for their sound than as words selected for their meaning. Dal Ninete pianist Mabel Kwan followed with a virtuosic reading of three sections of Ung’s Seven Mirrors (1997).
The highlight of the concert’s first half was Susan Ung’s performance of Spiral XI: “Mother and Child” (2007), one in the series of Spiral works Ung has composed since 1987. Scored as a solo piece, this was really a viola and vocal duet for a single player. The viola part unfolds as repetitive variations of short melodic fragments with a distinctly Asian flavor. Ms. Ung’s startling techniques produce sounds developed through years of collaboration with her husband to craft an idiosyncratic method to adapt the viola to his unique soundscape. Her vocalizations worked in contrast to the viola and consisted of singing, humming, chanting, and whistling. Again, these utterances were chosen for their sonic quality alone. Reducing the human voice to its fundamental core in this manner yielded a profound celebration of the human spirit and its drive towards expression, beyond simple meaning, to some even higher plane. Ms. Ung’s performance was heart-stopping and totally entrancing.
The second half of the concert began with guest artists Stacey Fraser (soprano) and Jocelyn Hua-Chen Chang (piano) in a persuasive performance of After Rising Light (1998). This bravura piece of musical storytelling sets a text from the Bhagavad Gita. The ending was particularly effective, as Hua-Chen Chang held the sustain pedal for many moments until the sound reached inaudibility.
Next, Dal Niente cellist Chris Wild performed Khse Buon. This piece from 1980 was the sole work Ung composed during his eleven-year immersion into traditional Cambodian music and culture. It was composed for Marc Johnson of the Vermeer Quartet, who was Ung’s colleague at Northern Illinois at the time. Wild deftly handled the tricky demands of this piece which was Ung’s first foray into devising special techniques to elicit Eastern sounds from decidedly Western instruments (and players).
The climax of the afternoon was Spiral I (1987), played by Wild on cello, Kwan on piano, and Beyer on an extensive arsenal of percussion. This was the piece Schick had introduced to Beyer 17 years earlier, and it clearly holds deep meaning for him still. Like all the Spiral series, the music is woven of relatively brief melodic fragments, repeated in many different ways. Wild led the melodic development from the cello, laying out lush lines that passed to his mates. As a line developed and decayed, suddenly they coalesced on another common thread, injecting new energy. Each of the players was required to use demanding techniques. Kwan played inside the piano as often as on the keys. Beyer worked at a sprint much of the time, mixing tuned and purely percussive sounds. Wild used every element of the cello and bow, leading the piece to its conclusion by ceaseless droning on the bottom string as he detuned it with the tuning peg until it was too slack to play.