REVIEW: The Legend of Cowherd and Weaver Girl

Music Across Generations and Cultures

Composers with connections to both the U.S. and China have found a distinct place in contemporary music, highlighted by a recent concert by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.

by Allan Kozinn, The Wall Street Journal (April 24, 2018)

Wang Beibei, percussion soloist

Composers who were born in China, studied music both in their homeland and in the U.S., and remained here to build their careers have become a distinct current within the chaotic ocean of 20th- and 21st-century American music. Now spanning three generations, these composers write music too diverse to be regarded as a cohesive stylistic school: Some mix Chinese and Western instruments, others write exclusively for Western ensembles; some draw on Chinese folk themes, others favor a bracing post-tonal acidity, and still more are neo-Romantics. Yet their works often stand out for their freshness and vigor, qualities that seem rooted in an approach to musical thinking that prizes the flexibility, and even malleability, of Western instrumental timbres but avoids conventional European formal models.

The conductor Gil Rose and his Boston Modern Orchestra Project shone a spotlight on this growing repertory on Saturday evening at the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, when they presented the world premieres of works by Yu-Hui Chang, Lei Liang and Anthony Paul De Ritis — an American who studied in China and became smitten with its sounds and culture — and the American premiere of a piano concerto that Huang Ruo composed during his residency at the Concertgebouw, in Amsterdam…

Mr. De Ritis, curiously, was alone in using Chinese folklore and instrumentation. An eclectic whose other works draw on popular and electronic music, he based “The Legend of Cowherd and Weaver Girl” (2018) on an ancient tale of forbidden love between celestial beings. It is built on narrative elements, or at least motifs that represent characters and actions (including a transcription, for winds, of traditional Chinese wedding music). But it is also a concerto for a large array of Chinese percussion instruments, and that aspect, thanks to the high-energy virtuosity of Beibei Wang, is what captured the attention in this colorful, 20-minute score. Still, a listener without a program book would not have picked it out as the program’s only score not written by a composer born in Asia.