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Heartfelt melodies

Music by Tyzen Hsiao -
reviewed by

'Performances sound committed ...'

Tyzen Hsiao. Russian Federal Orchestra; Vakhtang Jordania, conducting. © 2003 Angelok1 Records

Tyzen Hsiao's music has been heavily influenced by his birthplace, Taiwan. Each of the six works in this program includes pentatonic melodies reminiscent of Taiwanese folksong, and long passages suggestive of the island's landscape, history and people. Five of the pieces are highly tonal with straightforward harmonies and orchestral colors that wouldn't have sounded out of place nearly a century ago. I can see why Hsiao has been called the Taiwanese Rachmaninov. Passages from the piano concerto clearly reference that composer [listen -- CD 1 track 4, 0:31-1:29].

The sixth work, the Symphony Formosa in three movements, sounds surprisingly different. It shows the effects of a post graduate course at California State University and was in fact Hsiao's compositional thesis. Far more modern in melody, harmony and orchestration, it deserts Rachmaninov only to arrive at contemporary academic cliché, losing the simple sincerity of the rest of the program. It's unlikely Hsiao would have obtained his degree however with any of the other pieces here -- a criticism of the composer if you prefer a more progressive sound, the University if you believe sounding like Rachmaninov shouldn't preclude a passing grade.

One's reaction to Hsiao may hinge on a related issue. Melody is his strength. If his melodies sound cloyingly sweet to you, nothing in their conventional settings or developments will win you over. The main melody of the 1947 Overture is typical of the composer [listen -- CD 1 track 1, 0:37-1:44]. The piece is a musical description of events surrounding the Taiwanese riots and purges of that year. Orchestra and chorus honor the many thousands of victims in a style reminiscent of much of the patriotic Soviet music of World War II, but Hsiao is less strident in his depiction of strife and has a gentler, less triumphant view of adversity overcome. In the case of the Overture, even if the melodies do appeal, the piece has a naivety that overstays its welcome for those without intense feelings for the historical moments described.

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Copyright © 22 June 2005 Ron Bierman, San Diego, USA


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