On Thursday, pianist Kendall Feeney and her ever-changing Zephyr troupe will present a program titled “East Meets West.” Feeney certainly lives up to her “chamber music with an attitude” motto. It takes guts to plan an “East Meets West” show on the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Perhaps having arrived at the Year of the Apology, this can of worms is easier to open. And if music isn’t able to transcend politics, then nothing can.
Zephyr’s bill includes two Western composers who looked to the East for inspiration and two from the East who looked West.
One of the Westerners is Claude Debussy, the French impressionist well-known for his “Oriental” touch. Lou Harrison, an Oregon native who studied under Henry Cowell and Arnold Shoenberg, is the other. Harrison, whose philosophy is that life and music are intertwined, has written extensively for Javanese gamelan (bamboo xylophone), and many of his compositions for instruments of European heritage use them in the manner of a gamelan.
Harrison’s “Varied Trio,” for violin, percussion and piano, is made up of five movements. Actually, the traditional term “movement” implies a progression or going somewhere with a sense of arrival. This is not the case with the “Varied Trio.” Snapshots capturing an impression or mood might better describe the short sections of this work.
Debussy’s contributions, both for piano, are “Pagodes” from his “Estampes” collection, and “Pour les quartes” from his two-book set of 12 etudes. The 1903 “Pagodes” was one of the first pieces Debussy wrote that broke away from the traditional piano textures of the day. Tonal washes that create a mood were what associated him with the school of Impressionist painters.
“Pour les quartes” is truly an etude, a piano exercise on an interval - the fourth. The “Douze Etudes” collection includes exercises in dexterity on thirds, sixths and chromatics, but like the Chopin Etudes, which Debussy had just finished editing when he wrote his own set in 1915, these exercises are wonderful pieces of music. “Quartes” has a Chinese flavor because of its cascading use of the interval.
The Eastern composers who looked to the West are Toru Takemitsu of Japan and Bright Sheng from China. Both are well-grounded in the music of their respective cultures and have used European instruments and forms for their expressions.
Takemitsu is a well-known name, as 20th-century composers go, having come onto the scene in the 1950s and receiving wide recognition since the ‘70s. His philosophy is best summed up by quoting him directly: “I am interested neither in adopting traditional Japanese music into Western art, nor in a blending of the two forms, but would prefer to concentrate upon creating an individualistic art.”
His individual voice is due to the fact that he is largely self-taught, although he was influenced by several contemporary composers, including Stravinsky, Webern and Stockhausen. Thursday’s program will include Takemitsu’s 1981 work, “Rain Tree,” for vibraphone and two marimbas, and his “Itinerant: In Memory of Isamu Noguchi” for solo flute, written in 1989.
Sheng was born in Shanghai and grew up in China when looking to the West for inspiration was not an option. A prodigy at the piano, he spent his early years playing for a dance company and studying Chinese folk music. After the Cultural Revolution, Sheng immigrated to the United States, where he has been championed by the likes of Peter Serkin and Gerard Schwarz.
Sheng’s “Three Chinese Love Songs,” traditional folk music set for soprano, viola and piano in 1988, will be included on Zephyr’s program.
Joining Feeney will be percussionists Brian Bogue, Robert Rees and Mark Tietjen, flutist Rhonda Bradetich-Tifft, soprano Tamara Schupman and Andor Toth playing violin and viola. As always, Zephyr features the top local talent, including a soprano willing to work with a Chinese coach to get everything exactly right, plus high-caliber imports.
Toth hails from the western side of Washington, where Feeney has appeared in his Friday Harbor chamber music series. Toth started out as one of the youngest members of Toscanini’s NBC Symphony and has continued with a life of chamber music with the Oberlin String Quartet, New Hungarian Quartet and Alma Trio, among others. He has also done a great deal of solo work, teaching and conducting.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: ZEPHYR’S “EAST MEETS WEST” Location and time: The Met, Thursday, 8 p.m. Tickets: $12 and $14, $8 for students