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Fanfare Magazine reviews Revelations, music of Su Lian Tan

All reviews were reprinted by permission of Fanfare Magazine. 

Let’s be clear from the off: Wants List material. Malaysian-born in 1966, Su Lian Tan has a uniquely expressive voice. My colleague Barnaby Rayfield, interviewing Tan in Fanfare 34:4, waxed lyrical about Tan’s achievements (FTCL, or Fellow of Trinity College, London, by age 17; postgraduate degrees from Princeton and Juilliard; flute prodigy). But it is the sheer force of invention, an invention that is clearly heart-based, that sends the listener heading for the repeat button after the final item has finished.

The word “Wayang” in the title of the first piece, Life in Wayang, commissioned by the Takacs Quartet who premiered it in Vermont in 2003, refers to a puppet theatre found in the Malay world, particularly Indonesia and Malaysia. Shadow puppetry depicts stories with their roots in Hindu epics to the strains of gamelan orchestras. These stories tend to be in three parts, as is Tan’s piece: “Gods Descend”; “Ballade”; and “The Chattering Strings”.   Programmatic background is important here, therefore: the hesitant solo violin at the opening is a beckoning into this world. If the traditional idea of a string quartet is of civilised discourse between four protagonists, this expands that out into a fully dramatic performance with a cast of four. Gamelan imitation is part of this, but it is the sheer intensity of utterance that is so spell-binding, particularly in as fine a performance as this one. The Jupiter String Quartet (a “particularly intimate group” as the notes put it, given that there is a pair of sisters, one of which is married to the cellist) is a fine ensemble, confident and a hundred percent sure of its intonation throughout. The central Ballade has the rather ambitious idea of charting the various shapes in which love manifests; it holds intimacy, but there are also disturbances to the fabric. Different modes of expression rub shoulders: the modernist, the modernist/oriental and the Romantic. The recording could benefit from a touch more depth in some of the more extreme outbursts here, but there is no denying the commitment of the performance. The third and final movement returns us to the idea of theatre; at its height, the conglomeration of lines could almost convince one that this is a string orchestra, not a quartet, that is playing.

The haunting end to Life in Wayang leads on naturally into the piano piece Orfeo in Asia, a celebration of the Greek poet/musician by depicting an imagined journey to the Far East. Different musics inform the first movement, “Invocation,” from Islamic chant to minimalist music to pentatonicism. Bruce Brubaker is a fabulous interpreter, sensitive to the harmonic scenery but equally capable of that minimalist section where a harder touch is required. The recording seems a little thin in the mid to higher ranges. The central “Mysterious Voices and Dancers” is a hushed meditation before the very recognizable gamelan imitations that open “Metamorphosis” before a hectic chase begins. This final movement presents a journey through and a meshing of various strands; Brubaker is the perfect guide through this thicket of musical information.

Finally, Revelations, which combines all artists into a piano quintet. This work apparently “represents the intricacies of life as a scholar, a teacher, and a role model.” A contemporary take on Baroque counterpoint provides the fuel of the first movement (of two); this contrapuntal effect seems to make the music nod towards Schoenberg. The performance is brilliantly choreographed between the various lines; I choose my words carefully as there is more than a hint of sprightly play, even dance, at work. The work’s second movement concentrates on the “vocal” aspect of the cello as it “sings” the expansive melodies, with restrained, otherworldly textures around it. Daniel McDonough is the superb cello protagonist on this occasion.

A superb disc, well annotated (notes by Elizabeth Clendinning, Assistant Professor of Music, Wake Forest University) and shot through with fervent advocacy from the performers of music that demands to be heard. Colin Clarke

Chamber music is a strange beast; it can be transparent and small, it can sound grandiose and dramatic, like a symphony or opera. Often, a composer develops a style that follows one or another of these paths, but very few travel the while territory. Su Lian Tan is one of the rare exceptions, and no stronger case can be made for the diversity and complexity of her varied take on smaller ensemble music than this new Arsis disc.

It is something approaching ironic that the most majestic and the broadest conception is the smallest in terms of ensemble size; in fact, it’s a solo. Orfeo in Asia was conceived as an opera for piano, certainly an appropriate conception given Orfeo was a musically microhistorical figure. Bruce Brubaker is a perfect advocate for the very vocal complexities of the second movement, just as one example, in which two choirs are contrasted, in Islamic and Western European traditions, as our mythical hero, having been whisked away to Asia, comes to terms with multiple musical heritages. He takes all extrapianistic effects, rhythmic complexities and tempo relations in stride, voicing each sonority and accompanying melody with virtuosic assurance and emotive finesse. He is also wonderful in the more conventional chamber-music structures of the piano quintet that gives the piece its title as it veers from the terrifying and turbulent toward the gorgeous and serene. During the more heavenly moments, the real revelations of the piece, it would be difficult to imagine music of a more rapt stillness and timeless calm.

Brubaker’s collaborators are the superb and increasingly ubiquitous Jupiter quartet, and they return for Life in Wayang, a piece that Tan wrote originally for the Takacs Quartet. From its sparse upper-register opening, it is clear, again, that cultural gaps are being bridged, and that Tan has chosen interpreters more than up to the task. Within the first several seconds, the music maneuvers from microtonal pianissimo to shattering sonorities of wide-open thunderous invocation. Here, all aspects of chamber music’s delicate minutia and cosmic grandeur are distilled into a few gestures, also a rarity, especially in today’s world of flattened dynamics.

This is music whose complexity of vision is mirrored only by the rapidity with which it changes, or maybe by the fluidity with which it confronts genre, technique and history via tonal continua head-on. These are spectacularly engaging performances of excellent music by a truly imaginative composer. How many rarities can one disc offer? Marc Medwin

Fanfare readers have met composer-flutist-pedagogue Su Lian Tan in my interview of her in 37:1 wherein her CD Grand Theft and Other Felonies was reviewed. That disc focused on  flute chamber music by her and her colleagues, but the present one features her music in the genres of the string quartet and piano quintet, and so spotlights her only in her capacity as composer, rather than as performer on the flute.

The opening Life in Wayang was commissioned by the well-known Hungarian Takacs String Quartet, who premiered it at Tan’s school, Middlebury College in Vermont in 2003. The first movement describes our concepts of God and pious love. Tan’s portrayal of these largely ineffable concepts keeps all of the members of the quartet very busy with complex gestures, rhythms, and effects including glissando, pizzicato, harmonics, senza vibrato, and tremolo. Her harmonic language is no less complex in its alternation between dissonant and less dissonant sonorities. In one section, a gamelan-like ostinato in the middle voices provides a foundation for the wending lines in first violin and cello. The movement ends in a whisper, flowing beautifully into the following movement entitled “Ballade.” Here, the harmonic languages is orders of magnitude more tonal than anything in the opening movement, forming a profound and pleasing contrast. Several dramatic high points are reached en route to its quiet conclusion. The third movement opens with a playful pizzicato figure and frenzied passage work in the various instruments, as they converse with increasing vigor. As the narrative reaches a high point, the frantic quality fades away into a final quiet commentary.

Unfortunately, at times language simply fails to adequately communicate what needs to be said, and hearing this quartet has driven that point home to me in a rather dramatic way. Words cannot express the impact that this quartet has had upon me, as this is music that simply must be heard and not merely written about. This is an extremely important addition to the brobdingnagian body of string quartet literature, and the Jupiter String Quartet, playing with impeccable accuracy and verve, presents the piece in the best possible light.

Orfeo in Asia is a work for solo piano. Instead of chasing Euripides down into Hades, he is spirited away to Southeast Asia, where he learns to charm all living things and expand his musical skills. The three-movement work jumps around a good bit stylistically as it depicts Orfeo tuning his lyre to a pentatonic scale, imitating droning voices resembling Islamic chant as wafting over from a minaret, describing a coy woman enticing Orfeo with Minimalist thirds, or evoking a gamelan orchestra. Despite these widely disparate ideas, the piece holds together and convinces the auditor, although I do not believe it rises to the masterpiece level of Life in Wayang. Pianist Bruce Brubaker plays most sensitively and expressively throughout the work, as though he, at least, is convinced that the piece reaches the masterpiece level that I am denying it. (Please don’t get me wrong: This is nevertheless a good piece of piano writing!)

The disc closes with Revelations, a two-movement work for piano quintet. At least, I think it is, since neither the booklet nor the tray card gives precise information regarding the instrumentation for the work. It was commissioned by Paul Nelson for cellist Sophie Shao, but is exquisitely performed here by the Brubaker and the Jupiter Quartet. The harmonic language reverts more-or-less to the very complex harmonies of the opening movement of Wayang, as does its very busy texture. The devices that Tan employs so effectively in the earlier heard work are also employed in this work, and the impression upon the listener is equally profound. In the first movement, a figure comprised of 16th notes is tossed around effortlessly among the members of the quintet. These patterns are interspersed with dense clusters of tremolo notes, freely rhapsodic figures in the solo strings, and other devices to sustain interest throughout the movement. In the longer second movement, the cello, in its middle register, is intended to portray the human voice in an expressive line as it “sings” about human emotions ranging from the joyous and beautiful to the weary and tedious. The effect is one of heartfelt intimacy and piquancy that touches the soul of the listener in a profound way. I like this work as much as I do Life in Wayang, and the CD consequently receives my highest and most enthusiastic recommendation. David DeBoor Canfield

Click here for more information about Revelations (CD181).


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