Chinary Ung at 70

United StatesUnited States Chinary Ung: New York New Music Ensemble, (Le) Poisson Rouge, New York City, 16.4.2013 (BH)

Chinary Ung: Spiral (1987) for cello, piano, percussion; Aura (2005) for two sopranos and chamber ensemble (NY premiere)

New York New Music Ensemble
Jayn Rosenfeld, flute
Jean Kopperud, clarinet
Linda Quan, violin
Christopher Finckel, cello
Stephen Gosling, piano
Daniel Druckman, percussion

Guest artists:
Kathleen Roland, soprano
Elissa Johnston, soprano
Christa Robinson, oboe
Jo-Ann Sternberg, clarinet
Deborah Wong, violin
Lois Martin, viola
Susan Ung, viola
David Rosi, double bass
David Shively, percussion

Music aside for a moment, two markers of composer Chinary Ung’s stature were on hand for this vibrant concert by the New York New Music Ensemble, celebrating the composer’s 70th birthday. First, the well-wishers: I arrived at (Le) Poisson Rouge early, only to find an enormous crowd already assembled for the Cambodian-born composer. (The concert was also part of Season of Cambodia, an initiative of Cambodian Living Arts.) And a midpoint remembrance by composer Chou Wen-chung—known for his work with the late Edgard Varèse—was personal, humorous and touching as he recalled Ung, whom he has known for half a century, and now one of his most famous students.

Currently teaching music composition at the University of California San Diego, Ung was the first American to win the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in 1989 for Inner Voices, and often combines Southeast Asian elements with Western ones. Spiral (1987) is the first of Ung’s fourteen works in a series for different instrumentations, using modal melodies and small motifs that reappear, transformed. Opening with a piercing burst of crotales, cello and piano (Daniel Druckman, Christopher Finckel, and Stephen Gosling, respectively), the piece leads to a passionate solo with cello and chimes—the former sometimes in wispy harmonics. Non-traditional techniques abound: Gosling occasionally damped the piano strings with his left hand while playing with the right. As the group’s texture slowly thins out, the piano repeats a line with low, sustained cello riding over soft cymbals and gongs. And at the end, in perhaps the work’s most arresting passage, the cellist adjusts the peg of the lowest string, reaching for ever-more-subterranean notes, the groaning timbre offset by the gentle rustling of wind chimes.

In Aura (2005), Ung delves even deeper into traditional forms, drawing on Sathukar, which program annotator Adam Greene describes as “the most sacred piece of Cambodian ceremonial music.” But Ung channels the traditional while making the sonorities his own, using a large chamber ensemble plus two singers (with finger cymbals), with the feeling of a ritual. Originally commissioned for the Southwest Chamber Ensemble, the piece requires the musicians to chant, speak, intone—even whistle—in addition to the soaring lines for the sopranos (the excellent Kathleen Roland and Elissa Johnston).

If to my ears, the ritual goes on longer than the uninitiated might want, that’s often the point of sacred music: to immerse one’s self in the process, and surrender daily concerns—and expectations—to reach a state of contemplation or enlightenment. If I grew slightly, gently impatient, others in the audience obviously felt differently, given the joyous ovation.

Bruce Hodges