The present CD contains a generous sampling of music by Hong Kong composer and pianist, Dr. Man-Ching Donald Yu, who was born in 1980. As a pianist, Yu made his debut at the age of 16 with the Pan Asia Symphony Orchestra, and eventually earned a B.A. degree from Baylor University. Further musical studies took him to the Internationale Sommerakademie Universität Mozarteum in Salzburg, and he completed his education, being awarded a Ph.D. in composition and music theory at Hong Kong Baptist University. He is currently on the faculty of the Hong Kong Institute of Education.
The more than 150 compositions in Yu’s portfolio range from instrumental, vocal, and chamber pieces to large-scale operatic, choral, and symphonic works. The music on this, the second CD devoted to the composer’s music, has been selected to give an overview of the breadth of the genres in which this composer writes. Yu’s style, given that the reader likely is (as I was) encountering his name for the first time, forms an arresting and personal intermixing of tonal and atonal languages, with the musical colors and gestures of his native country infiltrating the mix.
Yu’s First Symphony (he has written two to date) is a powerful work, and rather dark in timbre, perhaps a cousin to the symphonies of Allan Pettersson. A three-movement work of some 20 minutes’ duration, the symphony remains one of its composer’s more substantial pieces. The more-or-less atonal language is softened by Yu’s use throughout of lyrical melodic elements. The work is cast in a cyclical form wherein motives from each of the movements show up in the others, serving to solidify the structure of the work. The quiet opening flute solo of the second movement yields to an energetic section that keeps the entire orchestra very busy, as motives are tossed adroitly from one orchestral choir to the next. The third movement begins with several ominous strokes on the timpani and the somber tone of the work continues, drawing on minor seconds and other dissonant intervals, but the symphony ends with a powerful and more-or-less affirming major triad.
From the Depth is Yu’s setting of Psalm 130, sometimes known by its Latin title, De Profundis. Many composers (this writer included) have set this stirring text, in which the exiled ancient Israelites cry out in despair from their Babylonian captivity. Yu’s stated intention in setting this psalm is to reflect on various unspecified unjust acts that have occurred in the world in modern times. There are plenty of these from which to draw one’s inspiration, to be sure. After a suitably solemn introduction, a soprano solo soars above the orchestra, and is shortly joined by the chorus, intoning the text in gentle harmonies. In the central portion of the work, the music reaches its dramatic zenith, becoming more agitated and chromatic. The work, like the symphony, is a powerful one, even in its quieter moments, although it is cut from a more tonal cloth than is its predecessor.
The harmonic language of the Octet for Strings reverts to that used in the symphony, and much of the work is ethereal and almost surreal in its effect upon the auditor. Tremolo and other devices are used to enhance the pitch set (0,1,4, e.g., C, D♭, E) that spins forth the work. The pitch set is expanded and contracted in various ways as the piece proceeds through slow outer sections alternating with fast, rhythmic sections in 6/16 meter. Sunset in My Homeland, scored for clarinet, violin, and piano, was written for the Equinox Trio, which is comprised of those instruments. This work follows a long tradition of music inspired by art—in this case, a 2001 painting, Sunset, by Chinese artist Zhang Guanghai. Here, I hear somewhat more overt references to Chinese music, with pitch bends in the clarinet and guzheng-like sounds from the piano in its lower register. Like the painting, this music also tends towards the dark side of musical expression.
In the next four works, we get to hear the considerable pianistic abilities of the composer. The Maximum Speed of Raphael’s Madonna is a work for flute and piano, and is also inspired from the world of art. In this case, the painting is the Salvador Dalí surrealistic canvas of the same name. The musical language is largely abstract and atonal, as it is in the following Dalí-inspired work for solo piano, Explosion (after the painting of the same name). In this work, a number of abstract variations are worked out in this brief and rather virtuosic piece. Dalí, clearly a favorite painter of the composer, also served as the inspiration of Disintegration for piano and tape, the painting being his Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory. The tape part was produced by the Granular Cloud Generator, and maintains a shimmering presence throughout the work, while the pianist plays musical filigree over this sonic background. It’s all extremely evocative and effective—all the more so if you know the original Dalí painting, which if you know anything about his work, you very likely do.
In his vocal music, Yu seems to trend more towards tonality. This is true, at least, of the Two Poems by Ya Hsien, and From the Depth, discussed above, as well as his Requiem to which I listened on his website. Two Poems was commissioned by the International Writers Workshop, and sets the poetry of the renowned Taiwanese poet. The texts, “Autumn Song” and “Blue Well” set a largely conjunct melodic vocal line against a kind of musical commentary by the piano, oftentimes in the extremes of its register. The CD closes with Breeze, a work for solo flute, in which the solo lines are interrupted by trills, sounds of breathing, fillips, and other effects.
The recorded sound of this CD, especially in the works for larger forces, is a bit rough around the edges, and the orchestras occasionally betray a ragged edge in their otherwise generally good readings. One could also find fault with the intonation of the soprano soloist in From the Depth. However, these are peccadilloes, and did not detract from my enjoyment of Yu’s finely wrought music. Consequently, I recommend this disc most heartily to those who find themselves absorbed in the music of our time.
FANFARE: David DeBoor Canfield
Reproduced with permission. Copyright © 2013 by Fanfare, Inc.
Man-Ching Donald Yu is an intriguing composer who writes in several different styles. The first work on this disc is his First Symphony which has three movements that are grouped together on one 20-minute track. The first movement is something of a prelude to the stronger and darker music to come. There is a great deal of melodic material, especially for the Lugansk orchestra’s brass section. It is buoyed up by the strings and punctuated by gestures from the percussionists. It seems quite cinematic to me and might really tell a murder mystery if we let it. Perhaps the brass is the culprit and the violins are the mysterious lady in the middle. In his full symphonic mode, Yu is very Western and quite modern, but he does use melody as one of the strands with which he weaves his magic. From the Depth is a Christian religious work based on Psalm 130. It begins with opulent low tones from a very well-played cello. Yu says he wrote the work because of the many injustices he sees on this earth. In some ways his resplendent choral writing seems to show some influence from Mussorgsky. He hammers his point home with passionate tones. I might have liked a soprano soloist with a more lyrical sound, but Amanda Li gives us a most dramatic rendition of her lines. The Ukraine String Octet begins Yu’s Octet with dissonance, but melody soon sneaks in with various types of little motifs. The violins are enchanting. Their sustained tones build like a storm that rises to a great peak. Eventually it wanes, leaving us with a gentle rain.
Sunset in my Homeland is played by the Equinox Trio of Malta: Tricia Dawn Williams, violin; Lino Pirotta, clarinet; and Tatjana Chircop, violin. Here Yu paints a musical picture of Chinese contemporary artist Zhang Guanghai’s setting sun. In The Maximum Speed of Raphael’s Madonna, Yu writes his impressions of the Salvator Dalí surrealist painting. A long flute solo, beautifully played by Bonnie Chung, is eventually decorated by entries from the piano. The piano passages represent the four round objects in Dalí’s painting, which can be seen online. Explosion for Piano and Disintegration for Piano and Electronics are two piano solos that Yu plays definitively. My favorite pieces on the disc are the Two Poems by Ya Hsien for Baritone and Piano. The lyrical Autumn Song and the more dramatic Blue Well are Chinese versions of Lieder with meanings to be pondered at length. I hope to hear them at a recital some time. The finale on this CD is the somewhat impressionistic Breeze for Solo Flute. I found everything on this recording interesting and generally the sound is good. Only during From the Depth which was recorded at the Hong Kong City Hall, did I hear some coughing, probably from an audience member.
FANFARE: Maria Nockin
Reproduced with permission. Copyright © 2013 by Fanfare, Inc.
This disc brings together works in various genres by the Hong Kong-based composer and pianist Man-Ching Donald Yu (b. 1980). The music was composed between 2006 and 2011, and each piece seems to have been recorded around the time of its premiere. The cantata From the Depth may even be the premiere performance, although this is not specifically indicated; it is a live recording from 2011 of a work completed the previous year.
While the symphony is the most substantial in terms of length and size of the forces involved, all the instrumental works share a distinctive postmodern tonal palette and a tendency to contrast episodes of tension with moments of atmospheric stasis, the latter often dominated by high sustained notes or clusters.
The symphony (lasting just under 20 minutes) is in three movements: the first serves as a riveting introduction, while the following two contain the real argument of the work. The second movement builds to a busy brass-dominated climax, while the third sits in a more monumental vein, closer to the composer's Chinese roots. Yu's orchestral textures show a highly skilled hand at work, and the dramatic thrust is palpable: here is a composer with something to say and the means to say it. From the Depth is similarly well scored. A setting in English of Psalm 130 for soprano, choir and orchestra, it has something of the concentration and dramatic intensity of Flagello.
The same stylistic characteristics permeate two substantial chamber offerings: the Octet for Strings (2009) and the trio Sunset in my Homeland for clarinet, violin and piano. The opening sections of the octet and the trio exist in a world of menacing post-Bartókian night music. The composer creates a real sense of time held in suspension (a common trait of Chinese art), and an atmosphere of anticipation- so that when movement comes it feels inevitable. The Octet in particular is a succinctly structured, compelling composition, and could find a place as the ideal 21st century companion to the Mendelssohn Octet on a concert program.
The other works are shorter and of lesser import. The two piano pieces (inspired by paintings of Salvador Dali) display Yu's prowess at the keyboard, while his settings of two poems by the Taiwanese poet Ya Hsien (2006) are more oriental in flavor, as the vocal line follows the contours of Chinese language over an impressionistic piano accompaniment. They benefit greatly from the warm, mellifluous baritone of Caleb Woo Wing Ching.
Performances and recordings are more than acceptable throughout, despite the differences of time and place. The Lugansk Academic Philharmonic (a Ukrainian orchestra) under Chernyak plays the symphony with clarity, strength and commitment, and clearly believes in the work. The Equinox Trio of Manila is similarly committed to the clarinet trio that was written specifically for them. In the cantata I would have preferred a purer soprano than that of Amanda Li- her vibrato has a tendency to get out of control- but otherwise the performance is strong and, again, full of purpose.
This release is recommended, particularly for anyone interested in hearing a taut new symphonic voice.
Fanfare: Phillip Scott
Reproduced with permission. Copyright@2013 by Fanfare, Inc.
Review on Sign of Spring for double bass and piano
from Sunday Times (Malta) (14th April, 2013): Culture and Entertainment
The second item was the world premiere for Sign of Spring composed in 2012 by Man-Ching Yu. Born in Hong Kong, this composer is frequently inspired by paintings. The work is tinged with an Oriental touch, while intermingles with impressionistic Western elements; a bit like a Toru Takemitsu composition. Williams sounded particularly assertive in the more abstract sections of the work where some passages are fairly demanding. Cincievski offered an interesting complementary role throughout the recurring glissandi, tremoli, and pizzicati.