Perry So and John Chen illuminate NZSO’s Chinese New Year

The Floating Bride, the Crimson Village (Ross Harris); Yellow River Piano Concerto (Xian Xinghai and arranged by others); Symphony No 6 ‘Pastoral’ (Beethoven)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Perry So; with John Chen (piano)

Michael Fowler Centre

Wednesday 1 February, 7.30pm

I missed the equivalent concert last year, marking the Chinese New Year, but heard it broadcast a couple of weeks ago by RNZ Concert (on Monday 23 January). The splendid performances obtained by conductor Perry So persuaded me that I should go to this year’s concert that he was also to conduct. While last year’s concert included, as Chinese content, the suite by Bright Sheng, Postcards, and arias from Jack Body’s opera Alley performed at the 1998 New Zealand International Arts Festival, this year it was the problematic Yellow River Concerto.

It had a curious provenance, starting in 1939 as a cantata by Xian Xinghai (old orthography: Hsien Hsing-hai) based on a Chinese poem urging the people to defend the country against the Japanese invasion. Though it was at first championed by the Communists, it was banned in the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976) along with all Western culture. (You will find excerpts of a performance of the Cantata on You-Tube, which strike me as suggesting something rather more authentic, with greater integrity than the concerto concoction; there is also an interesting performance by young Chinese pianist Harvest Zhang of part of his solo piano version).

Xian died in 1945; but Chinese musicians were anxious to preserve Xian’s work as well as to legitimize the piano as an acceptable instrument in the face of the mindless rejection of all things from the West. Six musicians, including the pianist Yin Chengzong, worked on an arrangement of the cantata as a piano concerto and it was premiered in 1970 (the Cultural Revolution encouraged collective artistic endeavour as opposed to focus on the individual). The concerto was immediately popular, but it again fell foul of political correctness for a decade after Mao’s death in 1976.

Even though China had acquired significant familiarity with Western music before the Communists gained power in 1949, and that continued, though with its main influence through the Soviet Union from then on, the traditions were ruthlessly destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

Xian had studied at the Paris Conservatoire under Dukas and D’Indy and his cantata had clear Western fingerprints; but following the Cultural Revolution, China’s view of the West remained clouded for a considerable time and this collective transformation of the piece in 1968 produced music that had the superficial technical, virtuosic aspects of some Western music pasted on to pseudo-traditional Chinese music that sounds simply trite and purposeless, failing to generate any sense of evolution or continuity.

So the success of the performance rested entirely on the splendid vigour of Perry So’s leadership and the whole-hearted and brilliant advocacy of John Chen’s playing: not only the dazzling speed and accuracy, but his irresistible gift of persuading us that perhaps it was better music than all the other evidence suggested. So it was understandable that an unsophisticated audience, uncultivated in the aesthetics and patterns of Western classical music (in China in the 70s, and perhaps here?), would have been moved by its sentimentality, its triumphalism, its naïve gaiety, by the sort of compulsory celebration demanded at the fulfilment of the goals of a five year plan. I suspect that Xian might have found rather embarrassing what his posthumous colleagues had done to the bones of his music.

The rest of the concert was non-Chinese.

It had begun with another performance of Ross Harris’s dazzling settings of Chagall-inspired poems by Vincent O’Sullivan, The Floating Bride, the Crimson Village. Perhaps it was not such an inappropriate offering if one sees oriental qualities in Chagall and thus in the exquisite realisations by Harris.

I heard the first performance of them at the 2009 Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson where they were accompanied by Piers Lane at the piano. Harris then provided orchestral settings for them which I heard in the NZSO’s May 2010 New Zealand music concert. Here they were given the clothing that they cried out for: orchestrations that were extraordinarily subtle and imaginative, and which I am sure gave soprano Jenny Wollerman a support and comfort that seemed from the beginning to be implicit in the compositions. Harris’s scoring (the brass limited to two horns, a trumpet and a trombone) is beautifully adapted to the sense and sounds of the poems and evoke with remarkable vividness the colours and fancies of the many Chagall paintings that are familiar. The orchestral writing is also so discreet, and the playing was so sensitive, that Wollerman’s voice was never troubled by undue weight or density. One tries to be aware of influences in new compositions, and of course they can be heard, ranging from Berg in ‘Tu es ma belle’ or Ligeti, Shostakovich, Stravinsky perhaps in ‘The Rabbi’ or Poulenc in ‘Give me a green horse’.

If O’Sullivan has created these poems almost, one felt, in a state of dream-induced, spiritual rapture, Harris’s music gave them a substance that seemed to takes us back to Chagall’s world in which the insubstantial becomes tangible in sound as well as in images.

The second half of the concert was devoted to the Pastoral Symphony; even though from a different era, and working in quite a different aesthetic, it seemed a far better companion for the songs than the Yellow River Concerto.  One often approaches such a well-known work as if another hearing is superfluous, it’s so completely in your head that you can hardly imagine being awakened to anything new or unexpected.

But Perry So’s performance had an immediacy and a sense of being heard totally afresh that I found it both illuminating and inspiring. Without indulging in excessive dynamic oscillation or rhythmic elasticity, he brought a sense of delight to the performance that is rare.

The first movement arrested with its finely judged dynamics and rallentandi, speed that never seemed hurried. Perry So lit each of the distinct motifs of the second movement with clarity while creating a sense of continuity and architectural integrity: again I was enchanted by the way he so visibly sculpted each phrase and used the dynamic palette so enchantingly. The speeds were brisk without sacrificing definition, individual instruments had their moments of stardom – oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon, and the dancing third movement, the storm, the gaiety, the pensive moments, created an ecstatic expression of fulfilment.

If I had wondered whether I would be much delighted by this concert, right at the start and certainly in the second half, I found myself in a state of high contentment and serenity. And so I look forward to another year of great music from this splendid orchestra.

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