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International Composition Prize - Luxembourg 2009


XiangZhenzhen Zhang
Against the CurrentTakahiro Sakuma
Chi’en III
Pui-shan Cheung
AcierMiguel Farias Vàsquez

Luxembourg Sinfonietta/ Marcel Wengler


This DVD features the four finalists of this annual composition. Beware, they are not played in the order featured in the liner notes.

Zhenzhen Zhang walked away with the first prize; her use of timbre in her composition Xiang is simply breath-taking. It is hard to describe as this piece encompasses such diversity, yet everything seems to belong organically to a coherent whole; this reflects the title which has three different meanings - ‘an integral part of a surrounding whole; pith of mould used in metal casting; an kind of ancient weapon’. I found the opening particularly beautiful; thoughtful, light and bright with each instrument given enough breathing space. There was almost an element of Jazz here. Each instrument is used to its full ability with the plucking and strumming of piano strings being particularly effective. A short central section uses only percussion with the mellifluous glockenspiel being contrasted by harsh drum beats.

First up, in 3rd place is Pui-Shan Cheung’s Chi-en III, inspired by the first hexagram of the I-Ching. This is a Dragon representing the creative and unrestricted energy; an apt name as this music is never static, building up and dissipating with a certain wildness. Opening with an undulating tone sustained harmonies are built up to be dissipated with quirky motifs and fluttering in the wind. An almost screaming effect is obtained by the wind at a certain point and evocative chanting is used to great effect. I would however disagree with Pui-Shan’s notes which state that the final section (which represents Buddhists chanting) has a ‘peaceful mood’; to my ear it sounded rather foreboding.

4th place was awarded to Miguel Farias Vàsquez for his composition Acier. Here the rhythms have been built up systematically. The piano and the glockenspiel seem to work together in contrast to the busy wind, to provide interjections of colour and, later on, rhythmic chords where the wind appear to be in chaos. There is a beautiful central section dominated by slow chords in the glockenspiel and piano before the wind slowly add their timbres and the motion picks up again. The final section consists of powerful block chords played by the whole ensemble interjected by scalic descents in the wind before the music draws to a close with long sustained tones.

I can see why Against the Current by Takahiro Sakuma was awarded the audience prize. With its Latin-American elements it has plenty of rhythmic drive. The title refers both to going against the current in terms of composition (Takahiro Sakuma is following his instincts rather than trying to do anything new) and the flow of water. Indeed one of the strengths of this piece is that it is scored lightly enough to let it flow - it never sounds too heavy. Again the piano and glockenspiel work in tandem to provide rhythmic interjections for the wind to bounce off. Composed in rondo form a single note of the cymbal serves beautifully to bring the A section to a close. The bass clarinet has a vital role with exquisite solos in the slow B and C sections (the C section also features sparkling motifs in the glockenspiel) and a low solo trill before the piece ends with two punchy chords.

All the compositions featured are cleverly designed and thought provoking; beware, they are not played in the order featured in the liner notes. It is a shame the DVD includes no extras such as interviews with the composers.

Anna Michel