Composer Zhou Long at The Phillips Collection
Sunday, December 11, 2016 at 02:19PM
Stephen Brookes
By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • December 9, 2016

The Phillips Collection’s Music Room can feel a bit gloomy at times -- the heavy oak paneling, those awkward columns, that huge and eternally cold stone fireplace. But on Thursday the place was cheerfully decked out with bright red Chinese lanterns, a welcoming nod to Beijing-born composer Zhou Long, whose lyrical, wildly colored music draws from Western modernity and ancient Chinese folk music — and improves both in the process.

Zhou was in town with Music From China, the ensemble he founded in New York in 1984, as part of the Phillips’s always interesting Leading International Composers series. Zhou has earned growing praise for his large-scale works (the opera “Madame White Snake” won him the Pulitzer Prize in 2011), but the chamber works on the program — played largely on traditional Chinese instruments — were no less dazzling in their delicate intensity and epitomized Zhou’s effortless transcending of cultural boundaries.

Take, for instance, “Impression of Wintersweet,” which opened the program. It’s built around a traditional 4th-century folk melody, played on xiao (an end-blown bamboo flute) and zheng (a kind of zither). But floating quietly behind the duet was a modern “shadow” of the music, played on percussion, that made the music seem to echo between the centuries.

Zhou is a gifted musical colorist with deep roots in the natural world, as was clear in the playful dissonances and quick-changing rhythms of “Valley Stream” from 1983 and in the deft sound-painting of “Three Chinese Folk Songs” and “Taiping Drum.” “Mount a Long Wind” was an exuberant, fiery tour de force with an almost orchestral palette of sound, and the natural lyricism that runs through so much of Zhou’s music was nowhere more moving than in “Green,” a sort of vocalise for bamboo flute and pipa.

But Zhou’s most interesting and probing ideas seemed to emerge in “Heng (Eternity),” for small ensemble. Elusive and wonderfully shape-shifting, it seemed to always be on the verge of pulling the rug out from under itself — an endlessly intriguing work from a composer who is starting to win the acclaim he richly deserves.




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