Review: At Juilliard Festival, the Stunning Sounds of China Today

Chen Lin conducting the Juilliard Orchestra in the stunningly visceral final concert of Focus! Festival 2018 at Alice Tully Hall on Friday.

Westerners have learned a lot in recent decades about Chinese contemporary music as it relates to our own, mainly through an influx of gifted Chinese composers and performers. But as the Juilliard School’s Focus! Festival 2018 showed over the last week, we still don’t know the half of it.

Joel Sachs, the event’s director, chose the subject, “China Today: A Festival of Chinese Composition,” because the school is about to establish a campus in Tianjin, a city of 15 million near Beijing. And he unearthed a rich source, to judge from a scintillating chamber concert on Jan. 22 and the sensational orchestral concert that concluded the festival on Friday.

Mr. Sachs set out, he wrote in the program booklet, “above all to feature composers living and working in China.” But the music had to use mostly Western instruments, specifically those taught at Juilliard, since the goal of this annual festival is to involve the students with new music.

The stunningly visceral final concert, with the Juilliard Orchestra conducted by Chen Lin in Alice Tully Hall, presented three works by veteran composers in their 60s or older (Zhu Jian-er died, at 94, in August). Two of them offered striking exceptions to the exclusion of indigenous instruments.

Guo Wenjing’s “Wild Grass” (2006), here in its Western Hemisphere premiere, is a concerto for erhu, a two-stringed fiddle played upright in the performer’s lap. Buskers in subway stations have made its penetrating sound familiar to many New Yorkers. As it happens, the Taiwanese-born violist Wei-Yang Andy Lin, who received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Juilliard, is also a virtuoso on the erhu, and he gave a brilliant performance.

Mr. Zhu’s Symphony No. 5 (1991; revised 2001), in its first performance outside China, included an extended cadenza for big dagu drums. By and large, percussionists will happily whack anything that moves, regardless of national origin. But Harrison Honor, a principal percussionist in the orchestra, went beyond that, evidently having mastered a particular rolling-thunder style also heard in performances by the Japanese drumming troupe Kodo.

The composer Chen Qigang (pronounced chee-GAHNG), who was the music director for the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, was represented by his “Luan Tan” (2010-15), named for an ancient musical style. The work bore a superficial resemblance to Ravel’s “Boléro” — beginning with a quiet, insistent tapping in a mostly steady rhythm and ending with a volcanic outburst — but had a marked personality of its own.

What the works all had in common was colorful orchestration with a prominent, often dominant, use of percussion as an organizing principle or a disruptive force. And Ms. Lin, conducting without a baton, was a picture of restrained elegance as she unleashed one sonic barrage after another.

Monday’s chamber program, in Juilliard’s Peter Jay Sharp Theater, consisted of shortish works by six composers, mostly younger and one female (Zhou Juan). Here, too, imagination was in rich supply

Especially lovely was Liang Nan’s “You Asleep, I Awake” (2015), a song in a westernized style, beautifully sung by Vivian Yau, a soprano.

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