China/New Zealand Ode to the Moon concert with a radiant Aroha Quartet

China Cultural Centre in New Zealand presents:
Celebration of the 2017 Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival

Music by A.Ke-Jian, Zheng De-Ren, Ding Shan-De, David Farquhar,
Zhou Long, Bao Yuan-Kai, Huang Kiao Zhi, Anthony Ritchie,
Shi Yong-Kang and Zu Jian-Er

The Aroha Quartet
Haihong Lu and Ursula Evans (violins)
Zhongxian Jin (viola), Robert Ibell (‘cello)

St Andrew’s-on -The-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday October 1st, 2017

This was one of those concerts that, had I been an ordinary audience member I would have looked forward to immensely! However, being a reviewer and facing the prospect of commenting on a genre of music about which I knew very little, I felt a mixture of excitement and trepidation about what I might encounter! As it turned out I need not have worried, as the music written and arranged by the Chinese composers listed above possessed strength, energy and beauty as I could easily relate to – the sounds communicated to my ears something essentially meaningful, however “unfamiliar” the actual pieces themselves might have been.

Of course the music was refracted here through the medium of the string quartet, one wholly familiar and identifiable to my ears. Having said this, I was amazed by the extent to which the instrumental timbres were made by the players to sound exotic, especially those conjured up by the quartet’s leader, violinist Haihong Lu, whose instrument at times sounded thoroughly “folk-traditional”, not at all like the tones and timbres of a conventional violin.

The programme began with an adaptation of a folk-melody by composer A Ke-Jian and jazz musician Zheng De-Ren into a Song of Emancipation given the title “Fan Shen Dao Qing”, here a forthright and energetic statement of bold intent, its direct and vigorous manner not unlike that of Dvorak in some of his chamber pieces. The piece included a contrasting “slow” middle section, notable for the instruments’ used of “slides” between notes, creating to my ears a wondrously exotic character, while the return to a more vigorous manner included a lovely “dancing on tip-toe” effect, and a brief valedictory sequence with folksy violin to the fore once again, the whole concluding with an exciting stretto.

The life of Hua Yan-Jun, or “A-Bing” as he was known to his family, seems like the stuff of racy novels, albeit with a tragic, premature conclusion due to ill health. Regarded as one of the most important Chinese musicians of the 20th Century, his legacy includes a work for erhu (a Chinese two-stringed fiddle) “Reflection of the moon in the Er-quan spring”, which has become one of the most-loved pieces of Chinese music, arranged for many combinations of instruments. The Aroha played a quartet arrangment made by Ding Shan-De, a prominent composer and pianist who studied at the Paris Conservatoire and afterwards taught at the Shanghai Conservatory.

The arrangement by Ding Shan-De gave all of the instruments opportunities to express their characteristics, the violins playing very much in the Chinese style, a mournfully affecting, lump-in-the throat-inducing effect, as befitted the music’s nature, for me – a kind of lament / prayer / invocation expressing in music the beauties of the moon’s interaction with the waters of a spring amid life’s joys and tragedies.

Though whole worlds apart in style and content, David Farquhar’s “Ring Round the Moon” music seemed to fit like a glove in this company. As was the previous piece to its composer, Hua Yan-Jun, Farquhar’s is easily his best-known work, its genesis a commission by the New Zealand Players for their 1953 production of Jean Anouilh/Christopher Fry’s play “Ring Round the Moon”. Though what the quartet played for us was described as a “Waltz Suite” only two of the three movements could have been characterised thus, as the concluding “finale” was a boisterous galop! Each of the other movements was also “quick”, which denied us an effective contrast during the course of this otherwise attractive music – a pity we weren’t treated to at least one of the two beautiful slow waltzes from the full work. Incidentally I’ve not been able to find details of which movements Farquhar used in his versions of either the complete “Waltz Suite” or in his transcription for strings commissioned by Nova Strings in 1989.

Evoking reminiscences of Anatoly Liadov’s “Eight Russian Folk Songs”, the next item gave us a comparable overview of Chinese folk-music from the composer Zhou Long, in the form of his “Eight Chinese Folk Songs”, published in 2002. Having completed both traditional Chinese and formal music studies at Beijing University the composer then relocated to the United States, there continuing to write and arrange music in the traditional Chinese style for both folk- and western instruments, and promoting performances of this repertoire. He currently works as Professor of Composition at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

I was taken by the emotional range of this music, almost Janacek-like in places in its direct, heartfelt use of the instruments’ full capacities, the opening of the first song “Lan hua-hua” demonstrating the sweep of feeling across vistas of anxiety, loneliness and grim determination, the original work concerning a girl escaping from an arranged marriage to be with the man she really loves.

Each of the song arrangements delivered a similar kind of strength and focus, while covering a wide range of human activity. The music abounded both in exquisite detailings as well as broader sweeping gestures – the second song, “Driving the mule team”, demonstrated, for instance, the composer’s exceptional ear for evocative rhythms in its combination of arco and pizzicato scoring, the resulting textures mimicking the sounds of the team’s harness bells.
The third song “The flowing stream” readily depicted a watery delicacy as a backdrop to what was originally a love song, while the fourth song “Jasmine flower”contrasted the rhythm of the dance with the performer’s awareness of the jasmine’s scent in the music’s more contemplative sequences. The remaining four songs continued with these kinds of evocations, mingling the ordinary with the fabulous in delightful and sometimes unexpected ways, as witness the hearty shouts of the quartet members-cum-herdsmen in the final jaunty “A horseherd’s mountain song”.

The programme’s second half again judiciously presented a New Zealand work amid music by Chinese composers, with the same resonantly positive outcomes. Three arrangements of traditional songs from various parts of China came first, followed by a depiction of an iconic New Zealand landscape via the music of Anthony Ritchie, a work evoking the countryside around Lake Wakatipu. The scheuled programme then concluded with an arrangement of music from a work called “The White-Haired Girl” – music originally cast in operatic form in 1945 before being reworked as a ballet, in which guise it has achieved the most popularity. This adaptation was the work of Shi Yong-Kang and Zhu Jian-Er, completed in 1972 at the time of American President Richard Nixon’s ground-breaking visit to China.

The three folk-song arrangements were played without a break – the first, poignantly called ‘Little Cabbage” actually enshrined a pitiable lament of a child (some sources say a girl, others a boy) who was ill-treated by her/his stepmother, and longed to be reunited with her/his mother. The music was appropriately wistful and played with great feeling (beautiful solos for both violin and viola) with an exquisite passage in thirds for both violins, with pizzicato accompaniment from the lower instruments. The second, “Camel Bell”, featured a great variety of exchange and dovetailing between the instruments to a jogtrot rhythm, in places freely modulating, the effect rather like a rapid-fire theme and variations treatment – as promised by the group’s second violinist, Ursula Evans, who introduced the group of pieces, we heard the actual “camel bell” at the end played softly on her instrument. The final song, “Happy Harvest” delivered what its title promised, after a “ready – steady – go!” kind of beginning – headlong tempi, real hoedown stuff, contrast brought about by an almost sentimental, more reflective section, in which the gestures reminded me of ritualistic happenings, with the instruments having turns to lead, and sliding notes of the most expressive kind figuring largely. A return to the stamping rhythms then brought about an appropriately bountiful conclusion!

Anthony Ritchie’s work “Whakatipua” came next, a single-movement work whose slow-fast-slow structure set the scene at the piece’s beginning – music of open, isolated spaces, with an almost lullabic character conveying a sense of nostalgia. Rather more matter-of-fact by contrast was a descending phrase heard at the outset and then returned to, suggesting a certain degree of depth and solidity, something enduring over time. A more active, urgent spirit awoke within the music, throbbing viola notes bringing ready responses from the other instruments, outdoor, angular figurations breathing copious draughts of fresh air, the sounds not unlike Douglas Lilburn’s “Drysdale” Overture in overall feeling. After the running exchanges between instruments had worked off some of the music’s energies, I liked the way in which everything gradually settled back into the serenity and spaciousness of the landscape, re-establishing a sense of isolation and distance (was that a hint of the erhu in one of Haihong Liu’s phrases?), the long-held notes at the end gradually dissolving into memory.

The final work on the programme carried with it something of a history, having been first set as an opera, then adapted to being a ballet, and in that form achieving classic status in China. This was a piece titled “The White-Haired Girl”, the story depicting the bravery and fortitude of a young girl who triumphs over adversity in difficult times. The music shared some thematic material with the folk-melody, “Little Cabbage”, which we heard earlier in the concert, and which link was demonstrated by one of the players.

A strong, forceful opening, achieved by vigorous bowing from the quartet members, opened the piece, followed almost immediately by a lyrical romantic theme, perhaps one which characterised the girl in the story, Xi’er. It was but one of many attractive, lyrical themes which provided a foil for subsequent sequences depicting conflict and struggle, the music making determined efforts to win through adversity through vigorous action – all very like Tchaikovsky in its heart-on-sleeve emotion, and requiring full-blooded responses from all four musicians! None were found wanting, as the piece took both players and audience through a gamut of feeling, the music freely ranging from hushed expectation to grand declamation at the piece’s end, rounded off by a brilliant running finish!

As if the players hadn’t given their all, they chose to entertain us with a stunningly brilliant encore which, to my ears sounded like gypsy music with eastern influences, something which I thought somebody like the Roumanian composer Enescu might have written, inspired by folk-themes depicting the utmost in visceral excitement. I subsequently found out that the piece (called Sa Li Ha, a girl’s name) was connected with Kazakhstan ethnic groups of the Xingjiang Uyghur Autonymous Region in northwest China. My informant told me I had been on the right track, but needed to go a little further eastwards! Still, the most important thing was what I thought of it all as music – to which I could reply unequivocally, “What a piece, and what a performance!”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *