After delivering two highly lauded performances at Carnegie Hall in May, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra returned to New York City on Sunday afternoon, taking the stage at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall to commence the 2013 Beijing Modern Music Festival. Before a quasi-full house, the orchestra performed a riveting matinee program entitled “Songs of the Earth”, which was dedicated entirely to the eclectic vocal and symphonic works of contemporary Chinese composer Xiaogang Ye.

Detroit Symphony Orchestra performing the world premiere of Twilight of the Himalayas. Soloists from © Beijing Modern Music Festival/Xiao Yan
Detroit Symphony Orchestra performing the world premiere of Twilight of the Himalayas. Soloists from
© Beijing Modern Music Festival/Xiao Yan

The concert opened with the world première of Ye’s Twilight of the Himalayas, Op. 68, which the composer completed, in part, after he was named a Guggenheim Fellowship recipient in 2012. For this performance, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra was joined by the New York Choral Society, who together accompanied soloists Yijie Shi (tenor), Liu Shen (boy soprano) and Ji Wei (zheng), under the conductorship of Yongyan Hu.

Twilight of the Himalayas is one of six compositions inspired by Ye’s years of travel through Tibet and Nepal, and takes listeners on a sonic journey across a region of the world renowned for its beauty, serenity, and rich tradition. Yet, what is perhaps most intriguing about this work is its tasteful marrying of Eastern and Western musical styles, which are used in conjunction to convey the piece’s Tibetan-inspired themes.

Indeed, the scoring of this work, which includes parts for zheng and dizi, provided concert-goers with a taste of the composer’s close Asian and American ties, satiating their palates with the diverse timbres and textures of both Eastern and Western instruments and stylistic techniques. For instance, throughout the work tenor Yijie Shi performed in a Western operatic style, while thirteen-year-old boy soprano Liu Shen delivered shrill, thin vocal lines more akin to the ancient Chinese vocal tradition. And while no Tibetan instruments were included in the scoring of this work, Ye adeptly crafted lines in the percussion and brass sections to closely imitate traditional Tibetan sounds.

Overall, Shi and Shen delivered a beautiful rendition of the composition’s vocal texts. The performance demonstrated Ye’s keen ability to paint words with sounds, bringing them to life through both the distinctive vocal timbres of the singing soloists, and the varied textures supplied by the zheng, orchestra and full chorus. All parts were carefully constructed to best capture the work’s dynamic swells, which moved in concurrence with moments of tension and release and resulted in a chilling performance.

Following this elaborate work were two United States premières that were equally impressive in their texture and effect. The first of these was Ye’s Konzertstück for violin and orchestra entitled The Last Paradise, Op. 24 (1993). This single-movement composition exemplifies Ye’s ability to convey a story without the aid of a vocal text.

It was violinist-protagonist Cho-Liang Lin who began the movement, with virtuosic solo passages. The performer produced glissandi up and down the neck of his violin along with urgent-sounding double stops, ultimately playing in textural contrast to the orchestra’s more angular lines. The stylistic techniques employed by Lin not only served to prove the performer’s incredible skill and dexterity, but also to express the musical protagonist’s sense of hardship and sorrow.

In the latter half of the movement, Ye’s music seamlessly transitioned into a more jubilant character, representative of the protagonist’s discovery of happiness, before flowing into a beautifully delivered violin cadenza by Lin. The work culminated with an ostinato section in the orchestra, which eventually dropped out, leaving just Lin and percussion section to fade away into nothingness.

The second United States première and final performance of the afternoon was Ye’s The Song of the Earth, Op. 47 (2005). The work is arranged as a song cycle for soprano, baritone and orchestra, and employs the same Tang Dynasty poems used by Gustav Mahler in Das Lied von der Erde. Ye appears to address the translational ambiguity that accompanied Mahler’s use of these poems by employing his familiarity with Chinese language and culture to create a score more literal in its interpretation of the ancient texts.

In this composition, the composer again demonstrates his incredible ability to fuse Eastern and Western musical styles, along with antiquated and contemporary sounds. Together, the orchestra and soloists Measha Brueggergosman (soprano) and Chen-Ye Yuan (baritone) delivered powerful, emotive instrumental and vocal lines that perfectly captured the character of the poems. The song cycle concluded in an unresolved manner, complying with Ye’s compositional style, and thus left a lingering sense tension in the air for the audience to momentarily savor.

Overall, this collaborative program with Xiaogang Ye proved to be yet another success for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. New York City can only hope to see more of them both in the near future.