The Shanghai Quartet played at the Washington Conservatory of Music, where my daughter takes cello, last Saturday, and my wife and I went to hear it. Fabulous concert - Haydn, Dvorak, and a medley of folksongs from China. There is a reason why the NYT says that there is no more polished string quartet playing today.
The Haydn and Dvorak were terrific, but I was especially intrigued with the folksongs. I spoke with the group's violist, who was the composer/arranger, Yi-Wen Jiang, at a reception after the recital. He described how he came to know these songs, as a youth sent to the countryside for "reeducation" during the Cultural Revolution. It was prohibited to play or sing anything from the West - no Mozart, Bach, Beethoven. Everything had to be Chinese and peasant. So he learned these folks songs because he wasn't allowed anything else, and has now arranged them for string quartet. As quartet music, it is striking - it has a certain background element of Broadway showtunes, of 1930s and 40s movie music about it. I was struck with that thought listening to it in concert, and I asked him about that element, wondering if I was just reading it in - but he smiled broadly and said that he wanted something in the music that brought back a certain feeling of "old China," "old Shanghai," as he imagined it must have been for a European before the Second World War. It is deceptively simple folk music, but overlaid very subtly with elements of different times and cultures, and very subtly different cultural points of view. In that sense, it undoes the revolutionary purity of the Cultural Revolution altogether - and becomes a shining example of the "new cosmopolitanism," the cosmopolitanism of mixing and contamination that Kwame Anthony Appiah celebrates in his new book.
My sense of Western classical music is that it is people like Li, Bright Sheng, and others who are able to draw upon cultural traditions such as China, Korea, other places who will keep it vigorous. The academic movements of the past sixty or eighty years are a dead end. I know, I know, what a philistine I am, not to appreciate avant garde and cutting edge music, and sure, I know all about how melody is dead, and all that (although the revival of all the supposedly dead stuff is actually well underway). I also have ambivalent feelings about the classical music move to domesticate folk traditions and make them comprehensible to the Western classical tradition itself. I don't precisely prefer the flamenco music I heard in Sevilla to the Parisianized and Romanticized versions of the music of Spain that Albeniz and Falla took to France; I like both versions, but they are different things. I don't precisely prefer csardas and all that stuff in the raw music of the Gypsy originals, on those old Folkways albums, to the classicized version made acceptable for the concert hall. But I have felt the difference, ever since a high school girl friend who was heavily into the folk dance scene in the 1970s in LA, and pulled me into as well.
The reality, of course, is that they are two different genres, and both are good in their own ways. Best not to mix them, though, to judge by a concert a couple of years ago as part of the Silk Road Project, I believe but don't quote me, that counterposed folk Gyspy versions and classical versions; from the reviews, they didn't seem to mix, and for an obvious reason. The Gypsy music was for dancing - it didn't sound right in a concert hall as classical listening music. You needed to dance to it to appreciate it. A very astute cello teacher once told me more or less the same thing about learning the differences between Baroque dance forms in trying (with indifferent results, I'm afraid) to play that chamber music - she said, you know, if you don't understand the nature of the actual dances, how they are performed, you can't really understand the subtle differences in emphasis. She was right - without knowing something about the dances themselves, it all seemed like there were two kinds - ones in 4/4 and ones in 3/4. Whereas it is vastly more complicated than that.
(One of the most fun reviews I ever wrote was on amateur music, for the TLS, here.)