In New York: Contemporary Heroes from China’s Music Scene

For Danwei, Nick Frisch reviews two recent Chinese music events in New York in recent weeks: A show by indie bands PK14 and Carsick Cars, and a festival celebrating intersections between Chinese and Western musical traditions at Carnegie Hall:

At the über-hipster Glasslands venue in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, one bearded, bespectacled bouncer looked positively astonished: “I’ve never seen a crowd like this. There’s a line out the door!” Another source of astonishment: “Wow! There are Chinese kids with tight pants and guitars who play music like our music!” Indeed; though Glasslands was certainly the hipsterati’s spot to see and be seen last Friday, it wasn’t immediately apparent that the crowd’s appreciation rose beyond the “Woah! Dude! Novelty! Cachet! China’s hip!” level.

More’s the pity: following the always-entertaining, always-gruff Xiao He, PK 14 turned in a terrific set. Carsick Cars, darlings and avatars of the Beijing scene, came off a bit lackluster compared to some recent D-22 and Yugong Yishan shows. But you wouldn’t have known it from the chatter in the crowd: scenesters know a hot trend when they see one, and lavished more praise than was really called for. But Jeffray Zhang and his band finished strong: their signature closing anthem “Zhongnanhai” brought forth a shower of unlit cigarettes to the stage, a su

Meanwhile, in the higher-toned confines of Carnegie Hall (full disclosure, again: this writer was in town working for them), that prestigious institution was wrapping up its “Ancient Paths, Modern Voices” China festival, which concluded Tuesday night. The program represented several generations of artists who learned their craft at Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music. The legendary “class of 1978,” named for the year they started at the just-reopened school, included big names like Tan Dun, Chen Qigang (of Olympic ceremony fame), Chen Yi, and Zhou Long. Of more recent Central Conservatory vintage was Lang Lang, who played Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto during Tuesday night’s festival finale. And at the youngest extreme, Li Shaosheng – born in 1988 – had a piece premiered in Alice Tully Hall under Carnegie’s aegis. Carnegie’s PR machine worked overtime, scoring several glowing reviews from the New York Times.

From a review of Ancient Paths, Modern Voices in the New York Times:

The concerts have had colorful moments, some in performances by traditional ensembles of various kinds, but most in works for Western orchestra drawing on Chinese themes and timbres.

Another of those hybrids, Chen Qigang’s “Iris Dévoilée” (“Iris Unveiled”), from 2001, brought the festival to a close on Tuesday evening. But the performance, by the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, was oddly anticlimactic.

That may be partly because eight of the nine movements in Mr. Chen’s 45-minute score are slow, gentle-textured meditations that require greater patience than New Yorkers can easily muster, particularly after being rattled by Lang Lang’s splashy, kinetic pianism in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

Here’s Carsick Cars performing “Zhongnanhai” at the powerHouse Arena in Brooklyn:

And PK 14 at the same event:


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