A Delightful Concert Celebrates the Chinese New Year

CanadaCanada  Zheng, Zhao, Li, Xian: Guilian Liu (pipa), Li Bo (horsehair lute), Claire Huangci (piano), Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Perry So (conductor), Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver, 28.2.2015 (GN)


Zheng Lu: Good News from Beijing
Zhao Jiping: Pipa Concerto, No. 2
Li Bo: The Tale of Matou Qin
Xian Xinghai: The Yellow River Piano Concerto

Li Huanzhi: Spring Festival Overture (encore)

In recent years, the symphony orchestras of Vancouver, Seattle, and various California urban centers have all held music festivals celebrating the Lunar New Year. There are many Asians living on the West Coast (Vancouver is now approximately 40% Asian) and, as a way of introducing them to the cultural joys of their communities, why not celebrate their most important event? Encouraging people to participate, and feel comfortable, at the symphony is ultimately critical to the long-run health of orchestras and to their funding.

This year’s two-concert VSO Pacific Rim Celebration featured the music of China and Japan. The famous Yellow River Concerto (1969) was performed at this first concert, and one might have had visions of some politics and related tensions entering the concert hall: this work was resurrected as one of Mao’s nationalistic statements against the invading Japanese. But nothing transpired at all. The younger Chinese seemingly look only to the new globalized China, and very few look back to the Cultural Revolution with the sort of nostalgia that, say, Europeans might feel looking back at the past. Some might not even glance at the traditional works or instruments showcased in this concert, prizing Western gems instead. When I spoke to Hong Kong conductor Perry So about whether his background gave him any additional inspiration when conducting this music, he responded in a way that may not be surprising, given that most younger Chinese artists receive their training abroad: “When we were young, all we knew were Bach, Brahms, and so on. We are just getting to know many of these Chinese pieces ourselves.”

In any event, I found this concert delightful. All the works performed had something of the same generic feeling. Unlike some modern Asian pieces that use traditional instruments like the ancient Chinese sheng in quite abstract, experimental settings (Unsuk Chin, Hing-Yan Chan), the works here all pay a healthy debt to the constructional techniques of traditional European and Russian romantic music, often inserting a few Chinese modes combined with a dose of modern film-music sentiment. All have some dramatic anchor in brooding lower strings and heartfelt (sometimes almost gushing) expression from the high strings, with pleasantly chirpy woodwind and brass often participating in upbeat rhythms. If one heard each work in isolation, the naïveté of their design would be apparent, but when all are heard together, you get into the style. Three of the works were concertos, and one important item that can propel involvement is the way in which the soloist plays off the orchestral fabric.

Conductor Perry So debuted with the VSO last season, when he stepped in for an indisposed John Storgards and gave a pretty riveting account of Sibelius’ First Symphony – a work that he had never conducted before! His precision and his fresh enthusiasm, coupled with an ability to shape and control the orchestral line, were amply noted at this concert too.

After the effervescent opener, Good News from Beijing, the first concerto was Zhao Jiping’s Pipa Concerto. For the unfamiliar, the pipa is a four-string instrument akin to the mandolin that can produce a wide variety of ravishing sounds. While the best-known concertos for this instrument are those by Lou Harrison (1997) and Tan Dun (1999), this was Zhao’s second, and most recent, offering dedicated to Pudong-style pipa-virtuoso Wu Man. Guilian Liu, a graduate of China’s Central Conservatory of Music and now a naturalized Canadian, gave a strong rendering of the solo line, showing great care over her many tremolo passages and moving out with arresting dramatic strength when needed. This was most enjoyable. The instrumental voice contrasted quite effectively with Zhao’s somewhat silky travelogue-style orchestral backdrop, which brought to mind some of the colourful film scores he wrote for Zhang Yimou in the 1990s, with a hint of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez thrown in. Liu’s performance was perhaps more ardent and strongly projected than those recently given by Wu Man  ̶  who finds more poetry and intimacy  ̶  but it was formidable by any standard.

Li Bo has played his composition for morin khuur (horsehair lute) and orchestra, The Tale of Matou Qin, a number of times in West Coast U.S. cities. The morin khuur is quite an exotic instrument, played somewhat like a viola de gamba, and the artist revealed that it has 120 strands of horsehair on the left and 160 on the right. Dressed in his Mongolian garb, Li Bo left little doubt that we were in the presence of a master. The work had a rhapsodic, neo-romantic flavour with rustic winds and rhythms, but the presence of somber Chinese watercolours later made it interesting. Bo developed his part with clear authority, and he was never better than in the passages accompanied by piano at the end, capping this off with a wonderfully yearning solo.

Finally, on to Xian’s famous (or infamous) Yellow River Piano Concerto, the concerto inspired by late 1960s politics that arose as a four-movement reduction of an eight-movement cantata originally written in 1939. Actually, the work has gained considerable currency in recent years, and there are quite a number of recordings of it. It has always been known for its derivative compositional style, borrowing freely from Liszt, Chopin and Rachmaninoff, a fact that was brought out on the record jacket of the early disc with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. It is also indelibly connected with Toru Takemitsu’s initial reaction: “How could a nation as great as China come up with a composition as such!” In retrospect, it is probably no more derivative than a host of 19th-century piano concertos written by now-forgotten contemporaries of Chopin or Liszt.

The work’s solo part is demanding, and 24-year-old pianist Claire Huangci, who often performs to acclaim in Germany these days, tore into it like a tiger. It would be difficult to think of many pianists with this type of agility and rhythmic accuracy, and she approached the work with great commitment and enthusiasm. I did not get tired of this. The second movement conjured up the fragrances of Falla’s Nights in the Garden of Spain, while also inspiring a carefree, happy feeling. The last movement was a virtuoso tour de force with plenty of surge and visceral excitement.

This concert was a joy primarily because of the artistry and commitment of the soloists and the judgment of conductor Perry So. There was such a fine balance within the conductor’s orchestral contributions, nurturing the clean lines, motion and beauty in each composition but being very careful never to push into emotional excess. His rapport with the soloists was impeccable. The music was obviously not top-drawer, but I relaxed more and more with it, eventually finding it charming. The encore was Li Huanzhi’s Spring Festival Overture (1955), a very popular piece in mainland China, and the music broadcast in space for China’s first lunar probe in 2007. Having a little of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol in it, this closed the celebration nicely with a touch of swagger.

 Geoffrey Newman


 Previously published in a slightly different form on http://www.vanclassicalmusic.com

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