violinists, try it on FOUR strings!

Something to share.

I’m currently listening to and in the process of reviewing a CD of music by Aaron Avshalomoff on Marco Polo, a Violin Concerto  and two Symphonic Poems. Avshalomoff was born in Siberia in 1895 but early on he established in Shanghai and, as the liner notes put it, he “worked to evolve a synthesis of Chinese musical elements with Western tecniques of composing for symphony orchestra”. The Violin Concerto may strike the listener as being to Chinese Music what Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto is to Armenian music, but I have a sweet tooth for it (and for Khachaturian’s VC as well). I’m not going to write the review here, stay tune [PS: here it is].

But I wanted to check how Avshalomoff’s compared to the “famous” “Butterly Lovers” Violin Concerto. Famous mostly in China and South-East Asia that is. I had heard of, seen as I compiled discographies, but never actually heard the “Butterfly Lovers” Co. It was composed for Western violin and symphony orchestra in 1959, in the era of “Chairman Mao”, when composing for Western instruments probably took you to the reeducation camp (just kidding – it was officially premiered in Shangai to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of Mao’s victory over Chiang Kai-shek), by a pair of composers, He Zhanhao and Chen Gang (because, in Communist China in those days, you composed collectively). For more on the Concerto, see the entry on Wikipedia (link will open a new tab).

Anyway, it turns out that the Concerto is everything I expected it to be: utter sentimental crap (there’s another similar piece, equally famous in China, the “Yellow River” Piano Concerto, a Chinese imitation of Hollywood Rachmaninov). Judge for yourselves, you may not agree (but just look at the smile over the pretty fiddler’s face, and even before the first note you can grasp the kind of sentimentalism…):

Yes but… One thing on YouTube leading automatically to something related, I chanced on this: a version of the Concerto which I suppose is an arrangement of the original work (no explanation provided, and haven’t found anything online about it), for Erhu – the traditional Chinese two-string fiddle – and an orchestra mixing Western and traditional Chinese instruments. And suddenly it all makes sense! It’s lovely, still (in parts) sentimental but when played on traditional instruments I find the sentimentalism touching rather than corny, it has a wonderful feel of genuine authenticity, and fiddle and fiddler are impressive.

And, again, one thing on YouTube leading to the next, two contemporary Concertos for Erhu – I am indebted to Google translator to simply establish who the composer is (same in both works): Wang Danhong (that’s a she,  I found these biographical tidbits about her).



I find that these works offer the best of what “cross-over”, or “East Meets West” has to offer, not the bastardization of Eastern music so often encountered in such attemps (or the bastardization of Western music heard in the “Yellow River Butterfly Lovers” concertos), not “the West” appropriating whichever superficial aspects of Eastern music for entertainment, but, in fact, Eastern composers trained in Western compositional techniques and putting those techniques to bear on their own musical traditions. The results are revelatory for both cultures.

And, yes, there ARE some similarities between the Butterfly Lovers Concerto and Avshalomoff’s, although I find the latter free of the corny sentimentality of the former – when played in its original version for Western instruments. Now, I wonder how the Avshalomoff’s VC would sound in a transcription for Erhu. Anybody ready to try it?

Comments are welcome