It has been a while since I've experienced an intermission to a classical concert as loud with whistling, fingersnapping, and humming as the one at violinist Lynn Chang's original and delightful concert Wednesday at the Boston Conservatory Theater.
The proximate cause was the Seattle violinist and composer Mark O'Connor's "J.C.s Jig" for violin and viola, a work that Chang played with guest artist Roger Tapping in a program of folk-inspired compositions for strings. The energy and interplay of voices in this short essay in Texas fiddling reminded us that good music can be grounded in physical joy and athletic daring.
O'Connor's piece came in the right spot in the program, too, following a selection of Bela Bartok's Duos for two violins and Ravel's Sonata for violin and cello, when one was ready for challenge to yield to pleasure. Chang, who is approaching his 25th anniversary on the Conservatory faculty, participated in every piece with the help of some extraordinary guests. He chose works that showed composers' taking more or less imaginative freedom with "found" material.
The Bartok Duos are quite literal renderings of Eastern and Middle European melodies, written as exercises. These were liltingly performed by Chang and his talented student Cordelia Paw. The Ravel was, as usual with Ravel, all about Ravel. In its close harmonies and simple progressions, it was "folk" in style, not substance. (There was a touch or two of Chinese melody, and perhaps a hint of his native Basque country.) Chang and Rhonda Rider played with fierce virtuosity. It would have been even better if Chang's generally heavy bowing had matched Rider's feathery and atmospheric touch.
Tan Dun's "Ghost Opera," premiered by the Kronos Quartet in 1995, is an ambitious, half-hour-long piece for string quartet and pipa player and an array of percussion instruments, including rocks, paper, and water gongs (sawed by bows and dipped in water). Framed with fragments of a Bach Prelude and quotations from Prospero's speech from Shakespeares "The Tempest," the piece evokes a shamanistic dream-realm where boundaries are dropped, and past and future meet.
In five movements, it follows a progression from dripping water to a Chinese play involving percussion instruments and pipa (played by the distinguished Min Xiao-Fen, who also sang), then to a conventional western string quartet format, and out again, in a double circular form, as the musicians move among the different instruments.
The challenge was met. One could tell the musicians were not percussionists by training, but they were good enough. The ghostly sighs and groans needed more dark menace. Tan Dun's knitting together of its cross-cultural elements often seemed theoretical or merely accidental. When it was over, what stuck in my memory were the sounds of dripping water. For elegance, nature is supreme.