The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra claimed, with good reason, that its Chinese New Year Concert had become a much-loved part of its season. It promised “a concert of works inspired by Eastern and Western music”, conducted by composer Tan Dun. The full program comprised:
Smetana Má vlast: Vltava
Wu Sea Silk Road: Sound of South
Britten Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes
Tan Dun The Map
Tan Dun’s evocative work, inspired by the ancient village music of Southwest China, was undeniably the most interesting of the four, occupying the entire second half of the program. But the four apparently disparate works chosen nevertheless shared a concept of place and journey. Each was worthy of a place on the program in its own right, and each proved a fine vehicle for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and the soloists, didgeridoo player Shane Charles and cellist Li-Wei Quin. A regular visitor to Melbourne at this time of year to conduct such seasonal concerts, Tan Dun has lost nothing of his containment on the podium and his ability to draw the essence of each work from the performers.
The auditorium for the Chinese New Year concert was (rather inexplicably) in darkness for the whole performance. This may have been to highlight the three screens positioned above the stage, which showed images of some relevance to the music being played. (Unfortunately, only the final work by conductor and composer Tan Dun made full use of visual images on the screen).
And from this reviewer’s point of view the dark auditorium was a disaster. The following day when I went to check my notes of the two hours of music, they were unreadable. Hence this review will not be as detailed as I would hope … a pity, as this was a concert which was performed beautifully throughout. Before leaving my gripe about the gloom, I’d like to suggest to organisers that such a move only encourages people to use their mobile phones as torches, and also appears to remove the restraint on audience members from taking pictures throughout the performance and possibly even recording it.
But to the concert itself. A screen picturing running water matched the flow of wind instruments, with depth added as the strings articulated the well-known theme of Smetana’s Má vlast (“My homeland” in Czech). The conductor’s restrained style nevertheless drew out music that was full of warmth and drama, his arms seeming to shape the breath of each phrase and to embrace the sudden shift to a rhythmic folk dance. The winds were pivotal in another switch – to the dreaminess promised by the opening; the strings were a fine partner, and the brass underpinned the whole as it swelled to an exultant version of the theme as Tan Dun remained quietly in control.
Young composer Sam Wu’s Sea Silk Road: Sound of South came next, before the Britten. One of its most interesting facets was its solo instrument – a didgeridoo which apparently represented the composer, chasing dreams “far away, across vast Asian seas”. Wu aimed to create “a musical tapestry”, and this he did, for example when the cello mimicked the sound of an erhu and the solo instrument had a duet with a flute. On a night when unusual demands were made of the percussionists in the orchestra it must be said that the entire ensemble played unfamiliar music like Wu’s with conviction and apparent ease. Charles delivered extraordinary sounds from the didgeridoo, playing with technical facility and feeling for the music. The whole was well received, with Wu present to acknowledge the applause. (Only the visual material let the piece down: a didgeridoo lying about in an apparently abandoned studio … for the entire length of the piece!).
Predictably the video screens showed seascapes for Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. The rather repetitive visuals were in stark contrast to the orchestral playing, which was dramatic and evocative of the four subjects. Highlights were a passage of syncopated rhythm, featuring brass, violins and a gong; a brass “chorale” and percussion that oddly suggested an Oriental sound – and an ending that was as exciting as one could hope for.
The real excitement was to come after interval, as Tan Dun revealed his composition, The Map. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the work came early, with resonant drums that recalled the “monkey dance” presented outside Hamer Hall before the concert. Although the instruments were not those of a Chinese orchestra, at times there was the impression of a sound that belonged to that tradition, and a smooth fusion with Western music.
Qin’s cello was employed in many ways throughout the nine sections of the work, with the soloist giving a performance that was both empathetic and masterful. A characteristic of Tan Dun’s compositions is a balance of letting traditional works stand on their own merits, and exploiting the possibilities of a fuller treatment of the music, in orchestral form. At last the visuals were used to good effect, as in the ghost dance, tongue-singing and more.
A twist was that the section “Stone Drums” was not just presented on screen but the ever-obliging MSO percussionists found themselves making music with stones, as if they learnt their craft in rural South Central China. The importance of the Stone Man was captured in Tan Dun’s words: “I felt he was a map” and “This is my map for the undying sound”. Orchestra and audience alike, we were part of Tan Dun’s latest journey. Where will his next take him?