Music for Families: Music Around the World—Asia

Music Around the World—Asia

The musical traditions of Asia have inspired composers and musicians for centuries. The unique sounds of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean folk songs and Indian classical music have even been woven into the fabric of symphony orchestras with extraordinary results. In this concert the San Francisco Symphony, Resident Conductor Christian Reif, and special guests take you on a fascinating tour of music that celebrates Asian cultures. 

An-Lun Huang: Saibei Dance, from Saibei Suite No. 2
Ravel: Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas, from Mother Goose Suite
Gang Chen and Zhan-hao He: Music from The Butterfly Lovers Concerto
Chance: Variations on a Korean Folk Song
Akutagawa: Allegro from Triptyque for String Orchestra
Ali Akbar Khan: Power of Joy
Yuan-kai Bao: Da-Bang Festival, from Sketches of Taiwan Symphonic Suite

 

An-Lun Huang: Saibei Dance, from Saibei Suite No. 2  

LISTEN FOR: This energetic Chinese dance gets the blood moving!

An-Lun Huang (b. 1949), studied at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. The Cultural Revolution derailed him from his formal studies, but he pursued music on his own and in 1976 took a conducting post at the Central Opera House in Beijing. He left China for Canada in 1980, studied composition at the University of Toronto, then at Trinity College in England, then at Yale. Today, he lives in Canada. Huang has represented Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs as an ambassador for Canadian music to China. He immersed himself in Asian and Western traditions, composing music colored by these dual influences. The Saibei Dance performed this afternoon is a jazzy curtain-raiser with a popular feel. (The fluttering opening flute solo brings to mind John Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine.) Halfway through, the music relaxes for a lyrical horn solo, but the energy soon increases, and the conclusion is rousing.

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Ravel: Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas, from Mother Goose Suite

PICTURE THIS: A queen being serenaded by tiny magical musicians

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) was fond of children, and he composed his Mother Goose Suite for the children of some family friends—a boy and girl named Jean and Mimi Godebski—to play as a piano duet. The work was first performed in 1910, not by the Godebskis, but by two talented girls who were six and seven years old. In this first incarnation, Mother Goose consisted of five movements: “Pavane of Sleeping Beauty,” “Tom Thumb,” “Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas,” “Conversations of Beauty and the Beast,” and “The Enchanted Garden.” The direct inspirations were children’s stories from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French collections, especially Charles Perrault’s Contes de ma Mère lOye (Mother Goose Tales, published in 1697). Though an evocative score, it is curious indeed as piano music, simplified to be within reach of small hands and elementary technique.  

Ravel orchestrated the work in 1911 when the music became the score for a ballet. He was irresistibly drawn to Eastern influences, and in Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas he makes telling use of a pentatonic (five-note) scale, jangling rhythms, and bell-like timbres to capture the exotic Romanticism suggested by this scene. The story concerns an empress who has been put under a magic spell. A note in the score sets the scene: "She undressed and entered her bath. At once, attendants set to singing and to the playing of instruments: Some had lutes made of nutshells, some had viols made from the shells of almonds, for their instruments had to be in proportion to their own scale."

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Gang Chen and Zhan-hao He: Music from The Butterfly Lovers Concerto

DID YOU KNOW?: This concerto also exists in a version for erhu, a Chinese two-string fiddle

The Butterfly Lovers Concerto was composed in 1958 by Gang Chen (b. 1935) and Zhan-hao He (b. 1933), students at the Shanghai Conservatory, in an attempt to set Chinese music in a Western symphonic medium, incorporating devices from Chinese folk music and vocal techniques. The result is a free-form concerto in one movement.

The music takes its inspiration from Chinese folk legend. Yingtai Zhu disguises herself as a man so that she can travel to a southern province to study. There she meets the young man Shanbo Liang. They develop a deep friendship. When Liang visits Zhu, he is surprised but pleased to discover Yingtai Zhu’s true identity. Complications arise when the pair discovers that Yingtai Zhu has been betrothed to another. The lovers meet at a tower and lament their misfortune. A tragedy on the scale of Romeo and Juliet ensues. The work concludes with Liang and Zhu being transformed into butterflies, rising into the air, never to be separated again.

The concerto is divided into three sections, played continuously. Part I describes Zhu and Liang’s meeting, the blossoming of love; their study and play and their sad separation when Zhu returns home. Part II portrays their resistance to the arranged marriage, their meeting at the tower, and the dissolution of their love in heartbreak. Part III wraps up the saga as the flute and harps suggest the mystery of the metamorphosis. Finally, the play of the butterflies is heard after a recapitulation of the love theme.

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Chance: Variations on a Korean Folk Song

LISTEN FOR: How does the mood of the main melody change from variation to variation?

John Barnes Chance (1932-72) was an American composer for concert band. A Texas native, he studied at the University of Texas and later played timpani with the Austin Symphony. Following a stint as a member of and arranger for the Eighth United States Army Band, he eventually made his way to the University of Kentucky where he taught until his death in 1972. Chance was on deployment in Korea when he discovered the popular folk song, “Arirang.” The song would serve as the basis for his Variations on a Korean Folk Song, which we hear today. Chance is inventive in his treatment of the memorable (and versatile) tune, as it undergoes a number of transformations in tempo, mood, and character. 

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Akutagawa: Allegro from Triptyque for String Orchestra

LISTEN FOR: A driving folk-like tune, introduced at the start, which reoccurs throughout the movement

Yasushi Akutagawa (1925-89) was a leading Japanese composer of the post-World War II era. Son of prominent Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa (author of Rashomon), Yasushi studied at the Tokyo Music School. He worked to advance the cause of Japanese music, not only in his wide-ranging compositions but also through his work with the Japanese Federation of Composers and Japanese Society of Rights of Authors and Composers. Akutagawa was a fan of Stravinsky’s music from the start and later spent time in the Soviet Union, where he rubbed shoulders with Shostakovich, Kabalevsky, and Khachaturian. With its chugging and angular rhythms and folk-like melodies, Akutagawa’s early Triptyque for String Orchestra (1953) recalls the motoric compositions of Prokofiev, Bartók, and of course, Stravinsky.

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Ali Akbar Khan: Power of Joy

DID YOU KNOW?: The sarode is a twenty-five string Indian instrument similar to a lute and features several strings that are not played but serve to reinforce the instrument's resonance.

The classical music of North India is among the oldest continual musical traditions of the world dating back thousands of years. Ali Akbar Khan (1922-2009) was one of India’s most accomplished classical musicians. His father, Acharya Baba Allauddin Khan, is acknowledged as one of the greatest figures in North Indian music of the twentieth century. Their family traces its gharana (ancestral tradition) from Mian Tansen, a sixteenth-century court musician of Emperor Akbar.

Ali Akbar Khan was admired by both Eastern and Western musicians for his brilliant compositions and his mastery of the sarode. He began his studies in music with his father at the age of three, and gave his first public performance at age thirteen. In his early twenties, he became the court musician to the Maharaja of Jodhpur. The state of Jodhpur bestowed upon him his first title, that of Ustad, or Master Musician. In 1955 Ali Akbar Khan came to the attention of violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who invited Khan to visit the US. He went on to make the first Western LP recording of Indian classical music, and gave the first television performance of Indian music, on Alistair Cooke's Omnibus, sowing the seed for the wave of popularity of Indian music in the 1960s.

Khan founded the first Ali Akbar College of Music in Calcutta, India in 1956. In 1965 he came to Berkeley to teach at the Asian Society of Eastern Arts; the Ali Akbar College of Music was founded in Berkeley in 1967. The following year the school moved to San Rafael, where it still is active today. In 1991 Ali Akbar Khan received the MacArthur Fellowship.

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Yuan-kai Bao: Da-Bang Festival, from Sketches of Taiwan Symphonic Suite

Listen for: The whole orchestra gets a workout in this exciting crowd-pleaser

Yuankai Bao (b. 1944) is a Chinese composer and music educator. He graduated from the Central Conservatory of Music and has been a professor at the Tianjin Conservatory of Music since 1973. His compositions include several works for orchestra, including Chinese Sights and Sounds: 24 Themes on Chinese Folk Tunes, the suite Sketches of Taiwan, four symphonies, and the oratorio The King Yu. His works have been featured on recordings by orchestras such as the China National Symphony Orchestra and Taipei Philharmonic Orchestra, on labels including DG, Philips, and EMI. 

Yuan-kai Bao belongs to a generation of Chinese composers who grew up during the Cultural Revolution (when Western music was stifled) but who later flourished as strictures were relaxed. He became interested in the idea of fusing traditional Chinese music with Western styles. As Bao noted in a 2002 article in Journal of Music in China:

It was in 1990 when I began to restudy various Chinese folk songs, dance music, ballad music, traditional operas, and instrumental music. My plan was to compose works based on the best tunes selected from our musical tradition in order to make the colorful and charming Chinese folk traditional music to be enjoyable for all people in the present world. I supposed that the new works should be both “symphonic” in form and “Chinese” in essence…

The “Da-Bang Festival” from Sketches of Taiwan evokes the swashbuckling sound of great old-time Hollywood scores.

(January 2018)