Symphony No: 3 Taiwan and Cello Concerto No: 1, Gordon Chin, Taiwan Philharmonic, conductor Lu Shao-Chia Naxos 8.570615
Double Concerto and Formosa Seasons, Gordon Chin, Kansas City Symphony, conductor Michael Stern Naxos 8.570221
Gordon Shi-wen Chin (金希文) is considered by many to be Taiwan’s leading classical composer. Now aged 58, he’s created a wide range of works including four symphonies, a double concerto for violin and cello, a cello concerto, Formosa Seasons for violin and strings and a major opera, The Black Bearded Bible Man. His music is colorful, frequently highly percussive, and modernistic without being abstract. Two important works, his Third Symphony (subtitled “Taiwan”) and his Cello Concerto, have recently been issued on the Naxos label, and they form a useful introduction to his work. They’re performed by Taipei’s National Symphony Orchestra (NSO), called here for political reasons — no mention of “national,” in other words — the Taiwan Philharmonic. (Naxos is based in Hong Kong).
What sort of music does Gordon Chin produce? I would call him a modern Taiwanese Stravinsky — modern because Stravinsky’s most famous work, Rite of Spring, dates from over a hundred years ago now, and Taiwanese because Chin is always eager to use East Asian instruments and cadences.
Of the two works available on this new CD, listeners are probably more likely to enjoy the Cello Concerto. This is because, while not very dramatic, it’s more dramatic than the symphony. Also, the presence of a solo instrument helps lead the mind into the music by giving you something to concentrate on; the cello is like as life-line, as it were.
The First Movement contains many styles in quick succession, while the Second Movement is altogether more leisurely. It has the title Dreams Trapped inside the Mirror, and on the whole the dreams seem to be bad ones. Indeed, Chin quotes the 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me” in connection with this movement. It continues darkly, but when we reached a passage where the cello is seemingly hit, scratched and scraped I could only collapse laughing. And then it was over.
As with the other two movements, the Third Movement conveys no very distinct emotional world, and ends unexpectedly, with no attempt at anything like dramatic closure. It too has a quotation attached to it, this time from the UK’s Samuel Johnson. “Reason deserts us at the brink of the grave and can give no further intelligence.” A somber thought indeed. Yet this isn’t “difficult” music; instead it appears to occupy a space somewhere between enjoyment and challenge. It’s as if Gordon Chin is opting not to go out of his way to be hugely popular, but doesn’t want to put any obstacles in the way of such an eventual outcome either. Yang Wen-sinn (楊文信) plays with notable decisiveness throughout.
This isn’t an instantly recognizable sonic world, but rather an amalgam of various modernistic elements. It seems to me, therefore, that Chin needs to either court real popularity, or else plow a more distinctive and individualistic furrow. At present he does neither, but occupies some indeterminate territory in between.
An older near-contemporary I would contrast him with is Philip Glass. Glass’s music is immensely popular, and yet at the same time instantly recognizable, effortlessly spanning popular and classical worlds. His style, moreover, appears fitted for both introspective works like Solo Piano and for ambitious operatic projects such as Satyagraha (revived by New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2011). Chin’s opera The Black Bearded Bible Man, by contrast, received a distinctly mixed review in this newspaper [Taipei Times, Dec. 1, 2008] when it was given its world premiere in Taipei in 2008.
The other work on this CD is Chin’s Third Symphony, titled “Taiwan.” Here the three movements are labeled Plunder, Dark Night and Upsurge, and in a program note Chin confirms that they represent the successive occupations of Taiwan by foreign powers, the tragic events that characterized Taiwan’s subsequent history, and then the victory of the people in finally gaining control over their own affairs.
This is a grand and entirely laudable scheme, comparable in many ways to some of Shostakovich’s symphonies devoted to the sufferings of the former Soviet Union. To what extent, then, does Chin succeed? I would say only partially. To begin with, popular suffering and eventual popular victory require a grand style, and this Chin seems reluctant to deliver. There are quotations from a Taiwanese folk song, and percussive sections representing various dramatic historical events, but the general tenor remains of someone unwilling to throw all caution to the winds and go for the grand effect. This was precisely what made The Black Bearded Bible Man so relatively disappointing in 2008.
I wish I could like Gordon Chin’s music more than I do. Those whose doubts are similar to mine, however, could well have recourse to an earlier CD from Naxos. This contains his Double Concerto for Violin and Cello and his Formosa Seasons for Violin and Strings, played by the Kansas City Symphony under Michael Stern, with violinist Lin Cho-liang (林昭亮) and cellist Felix Fan (范雅志).
The music here is much more accessible than that on the new CD, both in Formosa Seasons and also (somewhat surprisingly, in view of Brahms’ relative failure with the format) the Double Concerto. Both are extensively lyrical and almost routinely dramatic in ways that can’t be easily found in the Cello Concerto or the Third Symphony. Maybe I should have listened to this older product first, and in that way become acclimatized to Gordon Chin’s musical world. Listeners new to this important composer, therefore, are advised to do just that. They could well discover the rewards are considerable, a reaction I came to only belatedly.
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