Some years ago the composer Tan Dun discovered that in his home province in China there were women whose language was in song form and writing – exclusively from mother to daughter and sister to sister over the past 800 years. This was irresistible to the composer who was privileged to record, film and ultimately write music to accompany the songs of the women. The resulting work, Nu Shu, was the most anticipated work of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Chinese New Year concert this year. It more than lived up to expectations and deserved its place occupying the final half of an exciting concert.
Tan Dun conducted the whole concert, and was welcomed back by the Melbourne audience as an old friend, and a supporter of our great orchestra. The works in the first half of the program were more than the “bonbons” of similar New Year’s concerts in Vienna, for example. Some items had curiosity value as works from the classical Chinese repertoire, or featured unfamiliar solo instruments; and it must be said that the “east” part of the East meets West concept was the more successful on the night!
An appropriate choice for the concert, Li Huanzhi’s Spring Festival Overture could well be inspired by the percussive and rhythmic American music of its time (1956) or by a European folk tradition. But the lovely wind sounds like those of a traditional Chinese orchestra prevailed, echoed by the brass with rhythmic input from the tuba. The strings, especially the violins, added to the impression that this was indeed a Chinese orchestra! Tan Dun’s gentle conducting was well suited to the evenness of the piece but he was not shy of louder dynamics as the trumpet signalled a percussive end.
The next work, The Lark by Dinicu arr. Ventouras, may have been by a Romanian gypsy but the erhu soloist Zhao Lei claimed it for his own, playing with flair and no little humour. His fast fingerwork produced the whistling sound of a wind instrument as he cheekily drew the conductor into the joke. The marimba led the orchestra as the perfect accompanist to this tour de force.
Guan Xia’s Mulan provided a strong bridge between west and east in the traditional story of a young girl’s love for her father and involvement in warfare on his behalf. (Disney made one of its most popular movies on exactly this subject, with the same title!). The music was quite beautiful beginning with a slow solo on the zither-like guzheng played by Yuan Li, who made a graceful picture as she struck her instrument, employing many varied techniques to produce its repetitive sound.
Then came the well-known aria by Puccini, “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi. The soloist, soprano Bing Bing Wang, was slender and beautiful and sang with lovely phrasing and dynamics demanded by this aria, although her attack was not always strong. It is a mystery, however why this item was included as it did not appear to have any reference to either Chinese or Western music in the program. It certainly did not provide a bridge to the final item in the first half, Ravel’s Bolero. The success of this performance however was not entirely due to its being a standard for the MSO. It was a combination of two disparate elements: the conductor’s famously even sustained pace throughout the work, coupled with his permission for the brass to play as if they were jazz musicians. The progress to the climax of the work was beautifully balanced and the final burst of sound everything the audience could hope for, judging from the sustained applause.
And so to the final work: Tan Dun’s Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women. The composer has previously shown an almost metaphysical concept of his subjects, and so the reality of these songs (captured in screens and projections above the stage) is balanced by impressions of “living in a dream” which the composer explained as important to the understanding of the songs.
The harp played by Yinuo Mu was central to the sound to begin, providing melody against a minimalist soundscape. The screens (not without their problems) were at first a distraction from the gentle melody played by the wind instruments and harp. But as soon as the old lady on the screen started singing to her child in a duet, the audience was drawn in to this unfamiliar world.
In a number of the songs the sound of running water was important, accentuating the beauty of the work and perhaps a sense of escape into a dream. The orchestra, at one with the conductor/composer, realised this extraordinary world as the music ranged from an ethereal sound to occasional happier bursts of singing as the wind played a lovely melody. In their service to the music some orchestra members moved into unusual territory – for example, with the brass hitting their mouthpieces to create a particular sound.
Although most of the music was slow and repetitive and quite melancholy, there was a fantastic buildup of sound and energy to end. Yet again the composer brought us a work that shows his increasing maturity and complex version of the world. East met West indeed – if not in quite the way we had expected.
Suzanne Yanko reviewed this concert at Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne February 28, 2015