iSing! Suzhou and The Philadelphia Orchestra’s ‘Echoes of Ancient Tang Poems’ celebrates Lunar New Year

United StatesUnited States Various – ‘Echoes of Ancient Tang Poems’: Contestants, The Philadelphia Orchestra / Lio Kuokman (conductor). iSing! Suzhou, Alice Tully Hall, New York, 7.1.2023. (RP)

Wei Wu (bass) © iSING!

iSing! Suzhou and The Philadelphia Orchestra presented a joyous celebration of the Lunar New Year with this North American premiere at New York’s Alice Tully Hall. The concert also commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s historic 1973 tour of the People’s Republic of China, the first by an American orchestra.

iSing! was founded in 2014 to promote Mandarin as a lyric language. At first, its aim was to train Western singers to sing in Mandarin, but it became clear that the existing repertoire was insufficient to provide adequate performance opportunities. In 2020, when live performance was impossible due to the Covid pandemic, iSing! launched an international composition competition.

Composers were invited to submit works on poems from the Tang Dynasty (618-907), when poetry permeated all aspects of life – proficiency as a poet was even required for scholars wishing to enter the bureaucracy. For official purposes, as well as personal artistic expression, poets favored natural and philosophical themes. Vignettes from military life were also popular.

The works performed in ‘Echoes of Ancient Tang Poems’ were all winners of the 2020 iSing! Competition. An international jury headed by Xu Changjun, Chancellor of The Tianjin Juilliard School and President of the Tianjin Conservatory of Music, awarded ten grand prizes. An additional six works were deemed worthy of honorable mention. For this concert, 14 of the works were performed by an international group of singers with Lio Kuokman conducting The Philadelphia Orchestra.

Kuokman, Musical America’s New Artist of the Month in March 2021, is currently the Resident Conductor of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor and Artistic Adviser of the Macao Orchestra. Earlier in his career, he was the first Chinese assistant conductor of The Philadelphia Orchestra.

Valdis Jansons (baritone) and Lio Kuokman (conductor) © iSING!

The concert began with a rousing rendition of ‘Spring Festival Overture’ by Li Huanzhi. Composed in the mid-1950s, ‘Spring Festival Overture’ celebrates the Chinese New Year in a kaleidoscope of brilliant orchestral colors and soaring melodies. It was a precursor of what was to come in the concert.

The next work, ‘Drink to Me’ by Chinese composer Maishuo Luo, was not a competition entry but a special commission of the iSing! Festival. Currently an associate professor at the China Conservatory of Music, Maishuo Luo’s music has been performed in the Americas, Europe and throughout Asia.

The poem that he set to music was Li Bai’s ‘Drink to Me’, which celebrates the pleasures of drinking, even to the point of excess. Mezzo-soprano Melisa Bonetti and baritones José Rubio and Ihor Mostovoi, along with the the entire ensemble, gave a rousing performance of the song that sparkled with energy and wit.

Highlights of the concert included bass Wei Wu’s performance of Sam Wu’s ‘Quiet Thoughts by Night’. Sam Wu’s delicate orchestration captured the stillness of a moonlit night in Li Bai’s poem, as well as the poignancy of the poet’s longing for home. Equally philosophical but in a livelier mood was Tomàs Peire-Serrate’s setting of ‘Bamboo Shoots’, a poem by Liu Yuxi. With her shimmering coloratura soprano, Juliet Petrus floated above chorus and orchestra as she mused on what the coming day will bring.

In a completely different vein was Leishuo Ye’s ‘Docking by Bridge at Night’, which he set as a vocalise without accompaniment. The poem by Zhang Ji describes a frosty night with the moonlight waning and temple bells ringing. Soprano Esther Maureen Kelly’s soprano was as enchanting as it was beautiful in expressing the poem’s subtle emotions.

Pure fun is the only way to describe Nono Tongyan Chen’s ‘Singing of Goose’. The women of the chorus strutted and honked about the stage, while soprano Holly Flack topped off the song off with an A above high C6. It is a wonderful, imaginative witty setting of the poem that is as delightful as it is original.

The concert ended with Maishuo Luo’s ‘From Jasmine to Turandot’, a favorite iSing! finale. It begins simply with the gentle strains of the Chinese folk song ‘Mo-Li-Hua’ or ‘Jasmine Flower’, the melody associated with the Princess Turandot in Puccini’s opera. It ends with the singers all joining in on the far more famous aria from the opera, ‘Nessun Dorma’.

Endings don’t get much grander or more exciting than that. It was the perfect closing to iSing! Suzhou’s latest endeavor, which whetted the appetite for more from this ever-evolving musical organization.

Rick Perdian

Winners of the 2020 iSing! International Composition Competition
Grand Prize
Conrad Asman – ‘Drinking Song’ (South Africa)
Nicholas Bentz – ‘Enlisting’ (USA)
Nono Tongyan Chen – ‘Singing of Goose and Song of Snow’ (China)
Tomàs Peire-Serrate – ‘Bamboo Shoots’ (Spain)
Xiao Su – ‘Farewell on the Prairie’ (China)
Roydon Hoi Chak Tse – ‘Yellow Crane Tower’ (Canada)
Cynthia Lee Wong – ‘Snow on the River’ (USA)
Sam Wu – ‘Quiet Thoughts by Night’ (Australia)
Leishuo Ye – “Docking by Bridge at Night’ (China)
Jiao Zhang – ‘To the Assistant Magistrate’ (China)

Honorable Mention
Jonathan Bell – ‘Singing of Goose and Song of Snow’ (France)
Nicholas Bentz – ‘Looking for Hermit’ (USA)
Fernando Buide Del Real – ‘Sending off Du Shaofu’ (Spain)
Evan Mack – ‘Up on Crane Tower’, ‘News of Victory’ (USA)
Cong Wei – ‘Farewell to Dong Da’ (China)

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