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In performance: Chinary Ung

Web-only review:

Spotlight on Ung shows arresting composer
by Joe Banno

Composer Chinary Ung's career has been a study in cross-cultural synthesis, weaving timbres and tonalities of music from his native Cambodia into a Western style of classical writing. The Da Capo Chamber Players' all-Ung program at the Freer Gallery on Thursday was a telling showcase of his music's evolution, from Asian-scented Americana to thornier explorations of Asian music that happen to use Western instrumentation.
(read more after the jump)

"Child Song," from 1985, sounded like a bent-pitch version of Copland in its writing for flute, violin, cello and plucked, strummed and muted piano strings. In "Luminous Spirals," a 1997 piece for flute, cello and classical guitar, the melodies were more angular and fragmented, the guitar used as much for percussive effect as for color. Ung employed a larger ensemble - including clarinet, percussion and amplified singer - in his take on Buddhist funeral rites, " . . . still life after death" (1996). Soprano Lucy Shelton was very affecting in a part that asked her to whisper, whine, bark, stutter and sing her way through English and Cambodian syllables, as Ung himself (also miked) intoned a deep-voiced benediction over her.

The 2007 solo viola work, "Spiral XI: Mother and Child," composed for and performed (superbly) by Ung's wife, Susan, sounded like a microtonal deconstruction of unaccompanied Bach, paralleled by the violist's own Southeast Asian vocalizations. And his 2004 "Oracle," with a large, percussion-heavy ensemble playing, singing and chattering away (under Michael Adelson's adept baton) was a riot of exotic color that made one long to hear an opera by this arresting composer.

-- Joe Banno

By Anne Midgette  |  May 24, 2010; 5:05 AM ET
Categories:  local reviews  
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Excellent review. Thank you.

And yes, I agree with you. Why hasn’t the Washington National Opera or a more progressive American opera company such as the San Francisco Opera or the Metropolitan Opera commissioned an opera from Chinary Ung?

Dr Ung was the first American composer to win the highly coveted and international Grawemeyer Award (1989), sometimes called the Nobel prize for music. He did so following the first three awards going to the European composers Lutoslawski, Ligeti, and Birtwistle – the second two of whom both composed operas which have been performed in the U.S. (In fact, operatic works by both Ligeti and Birtwistle will be semi-staged in New York City this week -- Ligeti’s The Grand Macabre; and Birtwistle’s The Corridor – a scena for soprano, tenor and ensemble.)

I count at least eight subsequent winners –half of the eight Americans -- of the international Grawemeyer Award composing operas, so I wonder what factors have blocked Dr Ung from pursuing an operatic project.

Posted by: snaketime1 | May 24, 2010 12:28 PM | Report abuse

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