• Sarah Kwok

Gather Our Dispersed From The Ends of The Earth - November 10

Updated: Nov 7, 2019

The Orchid Ensemble presents Gather Our Dispersed From The Ends of The Earth, a tribute concert to composer Moshe Denburg in celebration of his 70th birthday, on November 10. Below, Moshe talks more about the featured works, working with the Orchid Ensemble, and how his compositions have developed throughout his career.

So, tell me about the show

Basically, the show is billed as a tribute concert to my 70th year on the planet. My colleagues in the Orchid Ensemble, Lan Tung and Jonathan Bernard, with whom I have collaborated for many years, thought this would be a way to celebrate the repertoire I have created for them. The Orchid Ensemble features three instruments: Erhu - played by Lan Tung, Marimba and Percussion – played by Jonathan Bernard, and Zheng (a Chinese long zither) – played by Dailin Hsieh. Lan is the originator of the ensemble, and Jonathan, who happens to be her husband, has been a driving force together with her. Dailin is the newest member, a true virtuoso on the Zheng (colloquially called the Chinese harp), though the instrumentation of the ensemble has always included the zheng. Musically speaking, this is intercultural music, and my own take on it brings together my various root influences - Jewish Music, Indian Music, and Western music – and applies these to a predominantly Chinese instrumentation.

Can you talk more about each piece on the program?

Here below are my notes for the different pieces that I have contributed. Add to this a birthday gift from my nephew, composer Elisha Denburg, and the program is complete.

The Road to Kashgar

The legendary Silk Road, which stretched from Xian (the ancient Chinese capital, Changan) in the East to Central Asia, India, Persia, and the Mediterranean and Rome in the West, was in fact not one but a network of routes that connected these diverse civilizations. The approximate midway point  of the road, a market place where all roads led, was Kashgar in the westernmost part of China. Kashgar is thus a synonym for the congress of ideas, people, and goods that was the Silk Road.

The present work, written for a trio of Zheng, Erhu, and Darabuka, is meant to depict one of many possible cultural configurations that one may have met with in or near Kashgar. As the rhythmic scheme of 7/8 is reminiscent of the music of Persia or India, this particular caravan is likely approaching Kashgar from the West.

The Endless Sands of the Taklimakan

The Endless Sands of the Taklimakan is the second in a series of pieces written for the Orchid Ensemble, dealing with the legendary Silk Road, both as geography and idea.  The Taklimakan is a vast forbidding desert in western China, that had to be skirted in order for Caravans to proceed further west to Kashgar and beyond, or further east into the heart of China and the ancient capital of Changan.

This infamous desert - which in Turki means "go in and you will not come out" - has been feared and cursed by travellers for more than 2,000 years. Sir Clarmont Skrine, British consul-general at Kashgar in the 1920s, described it in his book Chinese Central Asia:

"To the north in the clear dawn the view is inexpressively awe-inspiring and sinister. The yellow dunes of the Taklimakan, like the giant waves of a petrified ocean, extend in countless myriads to a far horizon with, here and there, an extra large sand-hill, a king dune as it were, towering above his fellows. They seem to clamour silently, those dunes, for travellers to engulf, for whole caravans to swallow up as they have swallowed up so many in the past."

The work is meant to be a landscape in sound, moving through several stages and moods: at first quiet and foreboding as the looming desert, and gradual and plodding as a Caravan would surely be. After experiencing the turbulence of a sandstorm all falls silent and distant again, erasing our footprints, leaving only our thoughts to attempt an impress upon eternity.

The Winged Horses of Heaven

The Silk Road developed gradually over a number of centuries. On the western end trade had existed for some time, due in part to the fact that many of the near and middle eastern lands were connected by maritime routes, but such was not the case with the eastern or Chinese end. In order to open up a route to the west enormous geographic hurdles needed to be overcome - deserts had to be skirted, mountains climbed and passed. Until the 1st century BC there was little effort made in this direction, so for the Chinese the lands of the west were - as were the lands of the east for the Romans - the stuff of legends.

In 138 BC it was determined that something needed to be done to counteract the incursions from the north of the marauding Hun tribe, called the Xiongnu.  The emperor sent his General Zhang Qian to try to contact a western tribe, the Yueh-chih, to solicit help in the fight against the northern invaders.  After 13 years of arduous journeys, adventures and misadventures, Zhang Qian returned to the Emperor with the news that the Yueh-chih were happily ensconced in Ferghana (past the Pamir Mountains in modern day Uzbekistan) and the oases of central Asia. However, he brought back the stunning news of a stronger, faster breed of horse, that could help the Han ruler immensely in his struggle against the Xiongnu.

These Ferghana horses, thought to be of celestial origin, were the compelling motivation behind the opening of a permanent route to the west of China and beyond. Now extinct, these horses have been immortalized in Chinese art. The most famous work is The Flying Horse of Gansu, a small bronze sculpture, 2000 years old, found in Gansu province in 1969. Here a horse is depicted in a galloping posture with only one hoof resting upon a swallow, thus illustrating its flight through the heavens.

The idea of the winged horse is quite prevalent in many cultures and religions. Pegasus is the winged horse of Greek legend, in Tibet the magical airy-Horse is everywhere, in ancient Chinese ritual and in Shintoism a horse-faced god, a kind of messiah, is transported to heaven upon a flying horse. So the image of the winged horse, and the dreams and hopes that such an image inspires, would seem to summarize what the  Silk Road was meant, and still is meant, to be. A great reaching out, beyond limitations, to behold and conquer new vistas and to take flight both in creative imagination and over the vast physical expanses of the earth.

El Adon

In this 'theme-and-variations' work, we first hear the variations - and only finally  the original theme itself.  The theme is based on a mystical prayer, chanted on the Sabbath day. The prayer is called 'El Adon al Kol Hama-asim' (God, Ruler over all Creation), and many mystical and kabbalistic references are to be found in the text. In keeping with the 'variations-first' idea, the movements are subtitled with the concepts as they appear in the prayer, but in reverse order:

I.    M'orot (Luminaries)

II.   Merkava (Chariot)

III. Hayot Hakodesh (Celestial Beings)

IV. El Adon al Kol Hama-asim (God, Ruler over all Creation)

In Midstream

In Midstream - for heptatonic Guzheng, is a work that takes the Zheng from being a pentatonic instrument, into the realm of diatonic and harmonic possibility. The work has two contrasting moods:

- a flowing or singing mood, utilizing repeated figures to accompany the melody - the 'stream' as it were;

- a contemplative mood, quieter, beatific, thoughtful, something 'in the midst' of the stream.


Composing for the heptatonic Guzheng, while allowing for increased harmonic possibilities, poses the challenge of not making it sound too much like the Western Orchestral Harp. Thus many of the Zheng's unique resources are utilized, such as: bending of strings to connect notes, one note tremolos, vibrati, and other nuances not part of the vocabulary of the Western Harp.


Originally composed in 2010 for a rare 27 string Zheng, but never premiered on that instrument, the present realization compromises nothing of the original. I am grateful to Dai-lin Hsieh, for her willingness to give the composition its world premiere, and for her meticulous work and kind collaboration.

Gather Our Dispersed from the Ends of the Earth by Elisha Denburg

This work is a fantasia based on a melody written by Moshe Denburg in the mid seventies. Elisha writes of this melody: “It is a song that invokes very specific and special memories for me, singing around the Shabbat table with him and my family when I was young. It also espouses a key Jewish value: the strength of community. This is why I always try to incorporate it into my chanting whenever I help lead Rosh Hashanah services at my synagogue in Toronto (First Narayever Egalitarian Congregation). In composing a new work for intercultural trio, inspired by this melody, I am attempting to give back to him and our community the musical and spiritual gifts I have been so fortunate to receive in my life so far.” 

Petals of the Flame featuring Flamenco Dancer with the Orchid Ensemble

My inspiration for this work came from an interest in Flamenco rhythms, and especially my acquaintance with rhythms in 3’s. The title is a double-entendre of sorts – the Petals can be understood as those of the ‘Orchid’, the flame from ‘Flamenco’. So, the challenge was to take this flower, which represents the ensemble, and give it the fire that resides in the realm of Flamenco. Admittedly, the etymology of Flamenco does not have much to do with flame – Flamenco comes from 'Flemish' - but it’s nice that it sounds that way, and makes poetic sense in our context.

Michelle Harding, flamenco dancer

The Orchid Ensemble has commissioned several pieces from you over a long period of time - how has your relationship them developed over the years?

I first met Lan in 1998, in the context of a different project in which she played Erhu. And Jonathan I met in the context of a Jewish community artists’ evening in which he took part.  Soon after that, together with master zheng player Mei Han, they got together to develop the Orchid Ensemble, and this musical relationship blossomed into a lifelong partnership of marriage as well.

They approached me to write for them in around 2000, and together we applied for funding to the Canada Council. The funding came through, and the first three works were composed for them. Over the years they requested many more pieces from me, and we are still planning new works. I would say that they have been the most significant musical collaborators of mine in my career.

How has your composing/artistic voice changed throughout your career?

At the beginning of my career I was mainly a songwriter and melodist, though I did take it seriously and I still consider a good song and a well formed melody to be a real achievement. However, over the years I delved much more deeply into the art of composition, and by that I mean writing for larger forces (like orchestras), and utilizing a broader musical language. For many of my generation, a connection with and attraction to the music of other cultures started in the 1960s, with the Beatles and others, who were incorporating non-Western instruments – tabla and sitar for example – into their works. It was a great new stream to draw upon, in order to create something new and exciting. I still think intercultural music making as having unlimited potential, with a much larger palette of sounds, and a noble endeavour and homage to everyone’s humanity. Orchid Ensemble represents one of the more significant prongs of the commitment to intercultural music making, and it is this endeavour, together with my dedication to Jewish Music, which has formed the warp and woof of my musical explorations.

Experience this collaboration for yourself (and wish Moshe a happy birthday!) when the Orchid Ensemble presents Gather Our Dispersed From The Ends of The Earth, featuring the works of Moshe Denburg, on November 10, 4pm at the Orpheum Annex, 823 Seymour.

More information: https://www.orchidensemble.com/

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