The Year of the Rabbit was celebrated in style on Saturday night. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra joined musicians from the Australian Dunhuang Arts Academy, Sichuan-born soprano Meigui Zhang and Chinese-Australian pianist Angela Li for an outstanding evening of music making under the baton of Darrell Ang, Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the Sichuan Symphony Orchestra,
Being the tenth anniversary of the MSO’s Chinese New Year concerts, it was a special occasion and one that further consolidated the MSO’s relationship with the Sichuan Province, Victoria’s Sister City since 2016. Chinese New Year celebrations have become an increasingly prominent part of Melbourne’s cultural fabric, with many thousands visiting the CBD to participate in various events – a reminder that more than a million Australians claim Chinese heritage. Of course, it was not only families of Chinese descent – some with tiny children – who packed Hamer Hall on Saturday; music lovers from all nationalities were keen to hear a multi-national program comprising works by Chinese, Australian Chinese, Australian, Italian and Russian composers. In his welcoming speech David Li, Chairman of the MSO was keen to emphasise the importance of cultural ties between Australia and China, a sentiment fully endorsed by China’s Ambassador to Australia, His Excellency Xiao Qian, who wrote: “Music is a bridge to stress the communication by heart, and it also gives us confidence and strength [these concerts] becoming a shining brand for people-to-people exchanges between China and Australia.”
Guan Xia’s Symphonic Overture No. 1 (2003) was a suitably festive opening work. Based on music in his national opera Dawn of Sorrow, and the soundtrack of the TV series The years of Burning Passion, it expresses the common element of these two works: “the feelings of heroism and idealism contained in ordinary people”. The work opened with an almost Wagnerian aura of strings, horns and heraldic trumpets. Following an expansive beginning, the piano entered accompanied by soft strings. The program notes describe the “lyrical piano melodies narrating feelings of no regrets after a difficult life”. A solo violin, a gentle woodwind melody and a pulsing bassoon culminated in an explosion of sound with uplifting rising chords featuring powerful brass to depict “the faith of burning passion” in a work designed to depict “a magnificent historical picture of the ancestors in the course of the Chinese revolution”.
A work with a very different agenda followed, but the aria “Regnava nel silenzio” from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor was musically in keeping with the melodious romanticism of the Guan Xia’s Overture – just considerably more contained in dynamic range and instrumental colour. Although Lucia’s first aria might not be the extravagant showpiece of the “Mad Scene”, it is an effective vehicle for displaying a soprano’s command of bel canto. Belying Meigui Zhang’s slender figure, her voice has strength and substance. A slight thread in the voice sometimes intruded into the purity of the timbre, but her vocal agility and range were admirable. She was also wonderfully expressive, subtly engaging her whole body and using appropriate gestures to convey emotion.
These performance attributes were particularly impressive when singing Four Chinese Folk Songs by Ding Shande in the second half of the program. The titles of the songs were printed in the program (and briefly projected onto the back wall) but, alas, no translations of any sung pieces were supplied. Zhang’s articulation appeared to be very clear, however, enabling much of the audience to understand the text. Initially condemned for “contaminating Chinese music with foreign techniques” Ding Shande’s Western compositional techniques still managed to retain strong elements of Chinese folk idiom, and Zhang’s vocal quality and elegant physicality struck me as being ideally suited to these tales of love, suffering, hope and “missing your mother while away from home”. Sometimes unaccompanied then joined by a delicate accompaniment of flute, harp and oboe, the first song was a gentle introduction to narratives that included a range of solos from various instruments and more urgent moments of joy.
Australian composers were represented by Julian Yu and Graeme Koehne. Yu’s Evolution was commissioned in 2018 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Orchestra of the National Centre of the Performing Arts in Beijing. Again, Western compositional techniques were combined with elements of Chinese folk music. The work begins with a perky violin pizzicato then moves to animated syncopation featuring brass motifs and melodic passages for strings. A solo trumpet, wooden blocks, snatches of wind solos lead from the nostalgia of a Chinese folk song to a triumphant crescendo.
If elevator music were as interesting as Koehne’s Elevator Music, it would be highly praised rather than derided. He has taken elements of popular music as his starting point for a trilogy of works, in this case taking inspiration from the music of Les Baxter, Henry Mancini and John Barry, all of whom integrated jazz and popular music into orchestral music. Koehne’s work begins with visual as well as musical impact – sticks raised high in the air before percussionists establish “the Beat”. Colourful Latin-flavoured rhythms, sudden changes in dynamic, brash to sleekly soft passages, winds petering out, a brief clarinet solo, a piercing whistle – and then we’re off again. What fun! The enthusiastic reception that greeted the frenetic ending of this marvelous ride put this example of “elevator music” firmly in its own special class.
It was an invigorating way to begin the second half of a program that saw the first half end with four movements from Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty (Suite). From the dramatic entry of the malevolent Carabosse to the Lilac Fairy’s gentle reassurances, magical harp roulades for the “Rose Adagio”, fluttering winds and quivering horns of “Panorama”, and finally the grandly sweeping melody of the Waltz movement, exceptional playing by the MSO had the audience wanting to dance to the foyers.
Sixteen excerpts from Ye Xiaogang’s Sichuan Image, commissioned by the Sichuan Philharmonic Orchestra to accompany filmed scenes, concluded the program. Generally very short and intensely evocative, the series began with a solo piano playing a simple melody as a Prelude to the composer’s musical reflections on his travels through Sichuan. Rendered in musical form, images of mountains, rushing torrents, rain and fog, plus observations on the lives of the people he encountered were diverse in emotional content and instrumentation. This was where we heard several Chinese instruments: the bowed two-stringed ehu, the lute-like pipa and various bamboo flutes – xiao, dizi and sheng. The few pieces in which they performed made many of us long for more. Concertmaster Tair Khisambeev played several beautiful extended solo passages, and outstanding contributions were made on harp and modern flutes. Some of these exquisite pieces were highlights of the concert.
To the obvious delight of the Chinese members of the audience, a well-known Chinese New Year song was played as an encore. Even those unfamiliar with the piece found satisfaction in the pleasure its inclusion generated, happy to share all aspects of a wonderful evening of cultural exchange.
Heather Leviston reviewed the Chinese New Year Concert presented by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in collaboration with Arts Centre Melbourne at Hamer Hall on February 4, 2023.