Chanticleer, San Francisco’s famed choral group, and the Shanghai Quartet, one of China’s original chamber music ensembles, will be featuring “From the Path of the Beautiful,” a seven-part piece written for them by composer Chen Yi in celebration of their anniversaries (30 years for Chanticleer, 25 for the Shanghai Quartet) when they perform this Friday evening at 8 p.m. at the First Congregational Church on Durant.
The program will also include Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major and “Three Songs” by Ligeti. Other performances will be Thursday night and Sunday afternoon at the S. F. Conservatory of Music and Friday night at Mission San Jose.
Composer Chen Yi, from Guangzhou, China—and long associated with Chinese Opera and traditional music, besides Western compositional music—left her homeland, where she was a pioneering female composer, to study in the United States in 1986. During the 1990s, she spent time in residence with the Women’s Philharmonic in San Francisco and began working, too, with Chanticleer. In the Bay Area for rehearsals and performances of her new piece, she commented on the program.
“In the ancient Chinese arts, you could find all the disciplines together,” Chen Yi said, “Like in a Renaissance sense, so many types, not a single discipline apart. Poetry would be in calligraphy, a branch of painting; the poems might describe dancing (calligraphy itself is called ‘dancing ink’)—and would be sung. I took the title of the piece from a book of aesthetics that introduced all the art forms. The seven movements represent some of them, not all! So if I lead, you will go through all these types of ancient art the music describes.”
The movements are not only after different arts, like those of rhymed poems or clay figures, but also imitate Chinese melodic lines where appropriate, and feature different sounds, like that of a village band (“kind of folksy, warm—for dancing!”) in the last movement, or elsewhere “more intellectual art forms.”
The composition opens a cappella, then moves through different sections (“all the movements have a different sound”) where either the quartet plays alone or with Chanticleer’s voices. The vocal style is sometimes in the style of Peking Opera. “I know it so well; I like using this kind of language. It’s like the reciting of ancient poems. You can imagine the chanting of voices. The singers are singing nonsense syllables! They suggest Chinese words, and sometimes imitate the sound of Chinese instrumental and percussion playing. The melodies don’t sound modern. It can have the effect of a Chinese folk opera.”
Chen Yi praised Chanticleer and the Shanghai Quartet. “We’ve worked together many times before—and the quartet said, this time write for us! So it was put together intentionally for the anniversaries. And next year is the 30th anniversary of San Francisco and Shanghai becoming sister cities, so it’s to the memory of Peter Henshaw and Gordon Lau, who made that happen. Peter Henshaw (who was chair of the board of the Berkeley Symphony when he died) was instrumental in bringing Chinese musicians here in the early ’80s to study at the conservatory. One of them, discovering the importance of chamber music in Western society, went back and founded the Shanghai Quartet (now based in New Jersey).
“Whenever I work with Chanticleer,” Chen Yi continued, “I change the translations of Chinese songs back into the original. They’re so high in quality, really well educated—and not only musically. They get the sense, the style. The purpose of the piece was to write for two different groups not necessarily working together in unison. And even within the choir, there are many, many different layers. It’s so complicated, not always in counterpoint. We weren’t familiar with the voices with the instrumental sounds. The first rehearsal was kind of a shock! But the blending of the two parts, the interactive sense—and especially the timbre, which is what we really didn’t know, with the two groups working together, and the rhythms—they’ve handled it really well. And we have a set of Chinese folksongs from another program, if people want an encore!”
FROM THE PATH OF THE BEAUTIFUL
Chanticleer and the Shanghai Quartet
• 8 p.m. Thursday, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, 50 Oak St., San Francisco.
• 8 p.m. Friday, First Congregational Church, 2345 Channing Way, Berkeley.
• 8 p.m. Saturday, Mission Santa Clara, 500 El Camino Real, Santa Clara.
• 5 p.m. Sunday, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, 50 Oak St., San Francisco.
Tickets: $25-$44. (800) 407-1400, (415) 392-4400. www.chanticleer.org
San Francisco Conservatory of Music composer Chen Yi, singer Zheng Cao and students from Crystal Children’s Choir will give a free performance and discussion at 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Call (415) 252-8589 for free tickets.