MSO: East Meets West

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Published: 27th February, 2018
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In 2014 the MSO inaugurated a series of annual concerts to celebrate the Chinese New Year – a sign that an already multicultural city was embracing a new reality, the increasing influx of Chinese migrants into Australia.

This concert series is now well established, under the patronage of China’s Ambassador to Australia. And what we now see is an orchestra embracing China’s leading contemporary composers and artists. In this instance we saw and heard performers of the highest calibre, led by conductor Lü Jia, who has spent many years conducting leading Western orchestras, and who is now Artistic Director of Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts, the Macao Orchestra and the World Chinese Orchestra.

Under China’s new “Open Door” policy toward Western culture and Western music, Chinese composers have adapted Western compositional techniques; with the result that the music is attracting a broader Western audience. The music chosen for this concert admirably expressed this evolution.

The three contemporary composers chosen for this performance were Bao Yuankai, Yang Liqing and Chen Gang/He Zanhao.

Bao Yuankai’s Chinese Sights and Sound: the Dialogue on Flowers opened the concert. Bao Yuankai is one of the most eminent contemporary Chinese composers and music educators, who has had an immense influence on younger generations of composers. The work comprises six suites, each of which is devoted to the folk music of a particular province. The score uses the techniques of Western music as a prism through which to explore and exalt the vistas and history of his homeland. A thoughtful prelude to the evening and sensitively performed.

The two solo performers for the night were Erhu player Ma Xiaohui and violinist Lu Siqing.

The Erhu (meaning “two-string’) is perhaps the best-known Chinese instrument and has remained largely unchanged over the last millennium. Besides its shape, the main differences between the Erhu and Western string instruments are that its sound box is covered in python skin, giving the instrument its characteristic timbre; and that the bow never loses contact with the instrument’s two strings, always running in a straight line between them, rather than passing over the top in an arc, as with the violin.

Traditional music performed on this instrument is usually of a delicate, or ethereal nature giving the impression of a rather fragile instrument. The Erhu is often associated with contemplative reflection and wistful melancholy, but in Yang Liqing’s Shepherdess of the Tianshan Mountain a haunting rhapsody, we heard a more impassioned and virtuosic side of the instrument.

Yang Liqing, is one of the few traditional classical Chinese musicians to have achieved an international career. And in her hands the Erhu is anything but a delicate instrument. In this eye-opening performance she demonstrated the instrument’s full potential. This was a presentation by a master, showcasing its virtuosic side as well as its full power. Did we really hear a hip-slapping Flamenco?

So to the major Chinese work, the violin concerto The Butterfly Lovers by Chen Gang and He Zanhao. Although it fell out of favour during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s it has regained popularity and is now a staple of the repertoire for Chinese and, increasingly, Western orchestras.

Briefly the work tells the well-known legend of the Butterfly Lovers, which dates from the Jin dynasty (265-420) and concerns Zhu Yingtai, the daughter of a rich landowner who disguises herself as a boy and sets off from her home village to study in Hangzhou. There she meets fellow student Liang Shanbo and, over the next three years, their friendship deepens. Tragedy strikes when Liang discovers that Zhu is betrothed to another man. The two part and Liang later dies of a broken heart. Before her wedding Zhu visits Liang’s tomb and when a storm erupts leaps into his open grave. When the storm subsides the lovers emerge from the grave as butterflies, never to be parted.

Violinist Lu Siqing, is no stranger to the MSO. He performed at the inaugural East Meets West concert, and together they have recently released a CD. Lu Siqing came to international prominence when he became the first Asian violinist to win the Paganini competition of 1987. He has since performed to acclaim in some of the world’s most prestigious concerts halls and collaborated with some of the world’s leading orchestras.

This was a profound, almost mesmeric presentation by a showman, delivered with style and panache, but always deeply respectful of the work. The MSO, again led by Lü Jia, appeared energised by his performance. He demonstrated enormous flair and it’s easy to see why he’s become an audience favorite. On this night he played the “Miss Crespi” 1699 Stradivari violin, loaned by David Li, a Chinese-Australian Arts philanthropist. In these Chinese works Lü Jia expertly coaxed the orchestra into revealing their nuances.

In May this year Lu Siqing will accompany the MSO on a six-city tour of China, under the direction of Chief Conductor Sir Andrew Davis. Prior to that date a Television recording of Saturday’s concert will be presented on Chinese television, which is sure to revive the MSO’s profile in China following earlier tours.

The final work of the night was a perennial (Western) favorite, Robert Schumann’s Symphony No 1 in B flat, Op. 38, Spring. Deftly handled by Lü Jia the work befittingly straddled the cultural differences.

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Reviewer Cyril Jones attended the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Chinese New Year Concert on Saturday, February 24,  at Hamer Hall.