Pipa, Amid Color Riot, Stars In Concerto That Casts A Wide Spotlight

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Pipa virtuoso Wu Man was the soloist in Du Yun’s ‘Ears of the Book‘ with The Knights under Eric Jacobsen. (Photos by Fadi Kheir)


NEW YORK — Few world premieres unfold amid such unlikely company as Du Yun’s Ears of the Book. Bob Dylan, Maurice Ravel, Kurt Weill, and more flanked the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer on the program, though any comparisons with her music were lost in the dust as her volatile, exclamatory, 10-section, 20-minute piece was premiered by pipa virtuoso Wu Man and The Knights chamber orchestra Feb. 29 at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall.

The concert was part of Carnegie’s season-long musical investigation of the Weimar Republic and its many implications, including Weill’s rarely heard Symphony No. 1 (1921) as well as his “Alabama Song” in an unlikely arrangement featuring Wu Man. (More on Dylan later.) The 46-year-old Shanghai-born, Harvard-educated Du Yun has a confident originality that puts her in the spiritual ballpark with post-World War I Weimar, but this collage-oriented composer tends not to project any specific nationality. Until this piece.

Jacobsen and The Knights with composer Du Yun

Though she has combined Western and Eastern instruments before, she hasn’t done so to the extent demanded by this concerto of sorts for pipa and the Philadelphia Orchestra, which co-commissioned the piece with Carnegie Hall and the Detroit Symphony but delayed the premiere until now because it wasn’t quite ready. The more intimate Zankel Hall and The Knights (with 41 instrumentalists, ready for anything under Eric Jacobsen) promised an insightful unveiling.

Though Du Yun initially seems to be an abstract neo-modernist along the lines of Tyshawn Sorey, she stands apart from any trance-inducing, Morton Feldman-influenced world with an almost Boulezian range of color and taste for percussion that keeps her music explicitly vigorous. Her much-admired opera Angel’s Bone has a family resemblance to this new piece, though her typically expansive horizontal movement is contained in what she calls Polaroids (actually micro-movements), all 10 of which have personal subtitles such as “Crisp Air” and “I have heard” in a continuous, intuitively constructed concatenation. Best not to try to pair the individual musical events with the possible subtitle meaning: Each Polaroid departs almost as quickly as it’s established.

Ears of the Book is a concerto if the medium is defined by having a single pipa soloist in competition with the orchestra. The piece starts with a pipa cadenza with aggressive strumming and extreme ranges — establishing the instrument (as stated in the program notes) as the storyteller in each section. The orchestral accompaniment can be spare, such as a soft, eerie upside-down pedal effect from the high, sweet sound of the xylophone played by bow. Crotales are also in the percussion mix, which is full of meticulously crafted sounds for each individual Polaroid, often coloring the overall sound texture rather than dominating it.

At times, the pipa chases the orchestra; sometimes, it is the opposite. One section is a finely honed duet between pipa and percussion, the instruments deployed with such animated choice of pitches that they seem to talk. So many instrumental combinations arise that I’d almost call the piece a concerto for orchestra. One section, though, has a truly lyrical solo moment that, as the composer explained to me afterwards, was inspired by Southern Chinese opera that exists in oral tradition, and thus is something for which she can’t take full credit.

Magos Herrera singing Chico Buarque’s ‘Geni e o Zepilim’ as arranged by Colin Jacobsen

The rest of the concert didn’t hang together as a cohesive statement, despite considerable effort put into arrangements, whose similar instrumentations made the music seem to be cut from similar cloth. But individual pieces had great curiosity value. Who wouldn’t want to hear Dylan’s 1963 “When My Ship Comes In,” said to be his response to Weill’s “Pirate Jenny,” with apocalyptic lyrics such as “The sea will split and the ships will hit and the sands on the shore line will be shaking.” The captivating Magos Herrera sang Brazilian music by Chico Buarque. Weill’s Symphony No. 1 showed the composer struggling to externalize what he was after, with a dense orchestration that perhaps masked as much music as it illuminated. Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin began the concert with faster speeds appropriate to the lean sound of the orchestra that, to these ears, was preferable to better-upholstered performances that are merely pretty.