Saturday, 13 April 2013

A HAKKA CELEBRATION OF MUSIC / Xiamen Philharmonic Orchestra / Review

Xiamen Philharmonic Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Thursday (11 April 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 13 April 2013 with the title "Similarities in Celebration".

The Xiamen Philharmonic Orchestra was founded in 1998, which is surprisingly young given that the Chinese coastal city in Fujian has a long history of dealings with the West. It looks and sounds like a young orchestra, raw-sounding at times but making up with lots of spirit and enthusiasm. A large part of this comes from its Music Director Zheng Xiaoying, doyenne of Chinese conductors, who possesses verve and vitality that belies her 84 years.

The concert began with Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien, which despite a confident opening trumpet solo, had the brass section sounding exposed and anaemic in colour. The orchestra overcame initial nerves with vertiginous turns in the tarantella and romped home with suitably brazen bluster.

It seems the birth right of every Chinese orchestra (including the Chinese-dominated Singapore Symphony) to tour with The Butterfly Lovers violin concerto. For not a few reasons, the audiences love it. It was even more likeable when played with the pristine precision and elegance of Huang Bin, winner of the 1994 Paganini International Violin Competition.

Her resolute tone and unwavering intonation came across naturally and unforced, backed up to the hilt by the clearly enlivened orchestra. The love duet sequence with the solo cellist was also a thing of beauty without resorting to cloying sentimentality. All on stage were in their element for this ageless and unflappable warhorse.

Maestra Zheng Xiaoying makes it a mission of hers
to speak to the audience before every piece of music.

This orchestra specialises in works marrying the Chinese aesthete with Western compositional techniques. Liu Yuan’s The Echoes of Hakka Earth Buildings, a 40-minute 5-movement programme symphony, was an example of this even if it was derivative, sometimes maddeningly so.

The work introduced a theme based on just two notes played by solo trombone, an idee fixe representing toil and labour of the Hakkas that reappeared in all its movements. Conductor Zheng, herself a Khek, broke the ice by speaking to the audience before each movement, introducing its themes and ideas, and even reciting poetry. It was in eventuality a good idea, because unlike Beethoven or Brahms, continuous listening could have been tiresome.

Enter the leaf blower, Zhan Jingjing

Projected images of the Hakka tulou, circular walled dwellings and UNESCO-listed heritage sites, helped quell the disbelief when encountering music that borrowed so heavily from Debussy’s La Mer and Respighi’s Fountains of Rome that plagiarism could readily be cited. Short appearances by ethnic singer Zhang Dongmei with her bewitching voice, and Zhan Jingjing, a “leaf-artist” who created an otherworldly sonority by blowing on a tight membrane created by a single leaf however gave the work a semblance of authenticity.

The maestra in her element, conducting the audience.

Excellent solo woodwind playing from the flutes, cor anglais and oboe distinguished the nocturne-like third movement, but the march-like finale joined by a 160-strong choir (formed by eight choral groups from Singapore and one from Penang) singing a catchy shan ge (hill song) proclaiming unity and solidarity was another rousing banality. This time, the Pines of The Appian Way, also by Respighi, was being ripped off.

This was however greatly enjoyed by the audience which heartily clapped along with the music, and was rewarded with its reprise and the popular Molihua, in turn appropriated by Puccini for his opera Turandot. An Italian lifting a Chinese tune, and a Chinese apeing an Italian; so let us call it fair game and a draw. 

As with all Chinese concerts, all the soloists appear at the end to take a collective bow. (From L) Violinist Huang Bin, "leaf artist" Zhan Jingjing, Hakka folk singer Zhang Dongmei and conductor Zheng Xiaoying.

The Xiamen Philharmonic Orchestra performs another concert THE YOUTHFUL MELODIES, a concert of Chinese and Western classics, on Saturday (13 April 2013) in the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall at 4 pm. ADMISSION IS FREE!

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