An amazing Chicago chamber-music group, Civitas Ensemble, sheds light on contemporary Chinese composers

With direct heritage embedded within it, the Civitas Ensemble devotes itself to a fascinating program
The Civitas Ensemble comprises three Chicago Symphony members and a Chicago pianist.
of music by living Chinese composers in "Jin Yin," which embraces all the selections in that choice of title, which means "golden tone."

A Cedille Records issue, the project was generated by Civitas founding member Yuan-Qing Yu, Shanghai native and assistant concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Her Civitas colleagues are cellist Kenneth Olsen and clarinetist Lawrie Bloom, also CSO members, and pianist Winston Choi.

Three guests join the band for the first composition, "Five Elements" by Zhou Long. The performance signals the flexibility of the group, as Yihan Chen (pipa), Cynthia Yeh (percussion) and Emma Gerstein (flute and piccolo) are indelibly integrated. The elements, each with its own  characteristic movement in this piece, are metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. The grouping, analogous to the four elements believed to have composed the universe in ancient Greek thinking, draws from Zhou Long music suggestive of its physical constituents without seeming to go off in five peculiar directions. The piece speaks with one voice, thus confirming the time-tested belief in a unitary creation.

"Metal," sharply percussive with well-designed clanginess, yields naturally to the next movement, where percussion is also prominent in "Wood" through the voices of xylophone and wood blocks. A focus on organic sounds is set in a perpetual-motion framework. "Water" seems to carry a French influence without leaning on Debussy and Ravel, who composed some of the most enduring water-based music. Crescendos and diminuendos mimic the element's flowing quality, and there's some lovely cantilena from cello and violin; the spirit of water nymphs inhabits the music. "Fire" shoots sparks and is restless rhythmically, blazing up from time to time. "Earth" seems to reflect places of both barrenness and growth. Without explicit tone-painting, "Five Elements' is freshly evocative.

Chen Yi's "Night Thoughts," whose title evokes Elliott Carter's monumental "Night Fantasies" for solo piano, is more simply laid out than the American composer's piece. Its randomness is a pleasant illusion, for the piece seems deftly organized. The new work is a 2019 adaptation for piano, violin, and cello. Its inspiration from a short atmospheric Tang Dynasty poem suggests free-floating mental activity. Calm prevails, as opposed to Carter's extremely knotty, often overwrought depiction of worry, ironic bypaths, and disturbing illusions. "Night Fantasies" suits the current time of Covid-19 nocturnal anxiety, but "Night Thoughts" is probably the piece we need more now.

Vivian Fung's "Bird Song" for violin and piano similarly doesn't piggyback on Western musical portraiture of our feathered friends. Its compact blend of the trilling charms of bird song and sudden fierce hubbub in the trees and bushes pulses with original life. As ornithologists remind us, the chirping and tweeting we often sentimentalize are actually declarations of avian territoriality, and there's a lot of that in Fung's music.

Lu Pei's "Scenes Through Window" encompasses an even wider range of experience, taking in highway travel while listening to rap with the unlikely addendum of looking out over a peaceful vista from an Indiana mountaintop. (It's thrilling to have Indiana mountaintops acknowledged in this fetching piece, because it's not among the features of the Hoosier State that often come to mind.)
Gerstein returns as guest artist for a piece that remotely suggests John Adams' "Short Ride in a Fast Machine" the difference being that Adams seems to be looking more under the hood, whereas Lu Pei is glancing out a car window at landscapes rushing by. That yields naturally enough to the pastoral vision with which the piece ends.

Concluding the disc is a spiritually ambitious composition by Yao Chen called "Emanations of Tara."  The piece offers prismatic aspects (with an authentic grounding in guest Chen's pipa) of a traditional Chinese deity. With a less abstract piety, perhaps, and of course a more extensive exhibition of timbres, the work may be seen as an East-glimpses-West companion to Messiaen's "Vingt Regards sur l'enfant-Jesus" for solo piano.

 Again the resemblance is not explicit. Like all the works here, there is a sturdy independence and interpretive vigor in the music's links to the outside world, including other music. And the Civitas Ensemble performs with unparalleled vivacity and commitment to representing five composers of distinction.


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