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Jenny Lin's Chinoiserie

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Read my review published today in the Style section of the Washington Post:

Charles T. Downey, Pianist Jenny Lin brings musical impressions of China to the Freer
Washington Post, April 30, 2011

available at Amazon
J. Lin, Chinoiserie
Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni thought “Greensleeves” was a Chinese folk tune. Gioacchino Rossini probably knew the polka was not danced in China but nonetheless wrote “Petite Polka Chinoise.” Compositions based on impressions both knowledgeable and fanciful of China and its music were at the heart of “Chinoiserie,” a recital Thursday at the Freer Gallery of Art by pianist Jenny Lin. The program was also partially drawn from her “Chinoiserie” CD from 2000.

Lin’s percussive touch is suited to aggressive, dissonant music, but one often longed for a more caressed melody and varied attack. Minor technical blemishes and pedestrian phrasing in Francois Couperin’s “Les Chinois” and Rossini’s “Petite Polka Chinoise” seemed to indicate that some of the earlier pieces did not engage Lin’s musical imagination. [Continue reading]
Jenny Lin, piano
Freer Gallery of Art

The goal of this program was to draw a comparison between the craze for Chinese-inspired porcelain, known in France as chinoiserie, and music supposedly inspired by Chinese culture and/or music, rightly or wrongly. Some of the pieces selected, however, had a tenuous connection to China. For example, the piece that began the concert, Couperin's Les Chinois (from the 27e Ordre, the last one published by Couperin in the fourth book of the Pièces de Clavecin), is possibly not inspired by anything actually Chinese: it has been speculated that the piece is related to a play of that name by Dufresnay, although its most recent performance in Paris had been some years earlier.

The same is true for the little 1977 piece by John Adams, China Gates, which the composer has said was "written for young pianists [specifically "for the seventeen-year-old Sarah Cahill," whom he knew in San Francisco] and utilizes the same principles [as the longer Phrygian Gates] without resorting to virtuoso technical effects." Lin made a connection between the drawing on the score's opening page, a series of square shapes, and physical gates perhaps associated with the Great Wall of China. However, in his official program notes, Adams says that the term gates was "borrowed from electronics," describing the intersection of waves, incarnated in Phrygian Gates as a "modulating square wave with one state in the Lydian mode and the other in the Phrygian mode." China Gates also opposes music in contrasting modes. The "China" part may be a reference to Cahill's father, who was an art history professor specializing in Chinese art. I am not aware if Adams has ever explained it.

The concert was programmed in association with the Freer's new reappointment of James Whistler's famous Peacock Room. Lin, who gave charming introductions to sets of pieces, said she had searched for a piece about a peacock: the closest she came was The Swan, a 1995 work by Chinese-Canadian composer Vincent Ho (b. 1975). With the large pleated sleeves of her black dress spread like wings, Lin reached over the interior of the piano, plucking, strumming, and striking strings directly with her hands. The almost constant whirr of strummed treble strings created a magical wash of toneless rushing noise that formed the backdrop of this intriguing sound-scape. Pieces like this one and others showed the other side of the coin, composers who are striving to preserve or incorporate elements of their native Chinese music in their new homes in North America.

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