Postcards From Exotic Places – NZSO’s Chinese New Year

Postcards From Exotic Places

SHENG – Postcards / LALO – Symphonie Espagnole

BODY – 3 Arias from “Alley” / DVORAK – Symphony No.9 “From the New World”

Tianwa Yang (violin)

Jon Jackson (counter-tenor)

Perry So (conductor)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 29th January 2011

On paper, it somehow seemed a slightly gimmicky way for the NZSO to begin the year – and having two much-played works from the standard repertoire presented as “exotic places” came across as almost ingenuous. How could Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony, which EVERYBODY knows, possibly create an “exotic” impression? And, as a friend of mine remarked, “Chinese New Year Concert? – well, if you regard Lalo and Dvorak as Chinese composers, I suppose!”

In the event, it all worked surprisingly well, not the least due to some remarkable performances from the musicians involved with the concert. Both of the “standard repertoire” pieces sounded newly-minted on this occasion, and the two more obviously “Chinese” items in the concert stimulated and delighted the ear, so that we in the audience were constantly drawn towards the music. The brilliant and evocative playing of the soloist, Chinese violinist Tianwa Yang, brought Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole alive for me in a way I wouldn’t have thought possible – I’d previously regarded the piece as vapid and long-winded, and was charmed to find myself so unexpectedly engaged by it all. As significant was the contribution of the young Chinese conductor, Perry So, who secured from the NZSO players plenty of energy and focus throughout, enabling one to fall in love all over again with Antonin Dvorak’s most well-known symphony, one whose familiarity might just as easily have prompted a routine, all-purpose makeover. Instead, here was a fresh, urgently-delivered sequence of responses which made the notes sound as though they really mattered, the first two movements in particular for me getting right into what sounded like the music’s pulsating heart.

One of the most interesting aspects of the concert was the performance of three of the arias from Jack Body’s opera “Alley”, first staged in 1998 in Wellington’s International Arts Festival. At a pre-concert-talk the composer himself charmingly spoke about the music and the figure behind its inspiration, China-based New Zealander Rewi Alley, an active and life-long supporter of Mao Tse-tung’s Communist Revolution and its aftermath. Though problematic for a number of reasons, the production at the time received a lot of acclaim, though I felt the music had been somewhat compromised by the various on-and off-stage goings-on. Here, then, was a chance to experience without undue distraction three of the opera’s musical highlights, each of the three arias belonging to the young Rewi Alley, reflecting upon different aspects of both pre-and post-revolutionary China.

Each aria was sung by Australian counter-tenor Jon Jackson, not quite with sufficient voice in his “normal” register, but crackling with electricity in his “counter-tenor” mode, galvanizing the textures with incredibly emotive tones. The first song, Two Eyes, describing the execution of a young dissident, began with beautifully-focused “exotic” textures, readily capturing a sense of a time and place at once immediate and far away. The singing, precise and controlled at first, seemed muted, in danger of being consistently overwhelmed by the orchestral textures (less of a problem, perhaps, with the band in an opera house orchestral pit), but then hurling aside all reticence in counter-tenor mode, as the victim’s fate becomes apparent. The second aria , Men at Work, featured goosebump-making antiphonal drumming, and orchestral vocalizations, the soloist more “sprecht” than “gesang” in places, describing both the power and purpose of “ten thousand men working naked”, and the near-eroticism of the sight of a young boy cooling his body with irrigation water. Finally, Night painted a visionary, in places heartbreaking set of images of sleep, involving sleepers, whispering trees and millions of “battered, joyless children” imploring, seeking comfort and love. Body and his librettist, Geoff Chapple, used texts drawn from Alley’s own poetry.

Opening the concert, Bright Sheng’s Postcards took us on a whirlwind tour of different parts of China, the composer using folk music idioms from specific regions to help characterize a particular feeling about each one. From the Mountains took listeners to remote, widely-spaced places, the wind lines exotically “bending” their melodic pitching in places and creating a peaceful sense of drifting distance in tandem with undulating string figurations. A contrast came with From the River Valley, whose Respighi-like energies, heralded by bell-sounds, featured ear-tickling sonorities from winds and a muted trumpet set against the roar of heavy percussion at climactic points. Rather more primitive and challenging was From the Savage Lands, sounding in places like a “Stravinsky-meets Britten” amalgam of rhythms and sonorities, building up to an exciting rhythmic tattooing of percussion and shrieking winds, until muted trumpet and bass clarinet led the music away from the bacchanalian frenzies to a state of exhausted afterglow, the composer confessing that at this point in his work, the final Wish You Were Here, his homesickness for his native land became all too apparent. Sheng’s music amply demonstrated at this point that peculiarly Oriental ability to evoke whole worlds with the simplest of artistic means, the restraint of the scoring making all the more telling a concluding impression of peaceful resignation.

As for the two better-known items in the concert, what I really enjoyed was the immediacy of the playing of both the soloist and the orchestra – I thought the instrumental textures were given a bit more edge and “bite” in places than has been the case with the orchestra of late, making for an exciting and involving sound. Beside violinist Tianwa Yang’s stunning playing – expressive across a gutsy-to-sweetly-rapt continuum – many of the orchestral solos both stimulated and enchanted, none more so than the superb cor anglais playing of Michael Austin throughout the New World Symphony’s Largo, though comparable magic was wrought by the front-desk octet of strings at the close of the movement. Apart from a reading of the Scherzo of the Symphony which in places relied perhaps too much on speed instead of rhythmic pointing, I thought conductor Perry So’s approach to the music constantly fresh and invigorating. And I liked the sounds he encouraged from the players, direct and wholehearted, and serving the music well.

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