Kong Chinese Orchestra in New York: Guo
Yazhi, Guanzi, Wong
Yan Huichang, Artistic Director
and Principal Conductor, Avery Fisher Hall, New York
City, 12.10.2005 (BH)
Zhang Shiye (arr.): Grand Victory
Wind and Percussion Folk Music from Shanxi
Zhao Jiping: Silk Road Fantasia
Suite for Guanzi and Chinese Orchestra (1983)
Tan Dun: Fire Ritual for Huqin
and Chinese Orchestra (1995)
Fantasia on Terra Cotta Warriors (1984)
As my friend and I walked
to our seats in a packed Avery Fisher Hall, we passed
near the front of the stage and admired the gorgeous instruments
onstage, beginning with a row of large bass gehus,
their lower portions covered with snakeskin.
We marveled at the intricately carved and decorated
lutes) not to mention an entire section of erhus
(slender wooden stringed instruments) which made us smile
with anticipation. This
is an enormous ensemble of over 85 musicians, including
bowed strings, plucked strings, wind and percussion, and
uses traditional and modernized Chinese instruments as
well as “suitable” Western ones.
I have to confess that although this type of music
is not my usual haunt, after hearing their totally infectious
concert, I defy any listener not to emerge delighted and
enthralled by their artistry.
Not only was the music extraordinary, but the precision
and passion of the ensemble would be welcome models for
any type of orchestra, any time, and the group’s charismatic
conductor, Yan Huichang,
directed the afternoon with sophisticated élan.
Founded in 1977, the Hong
Kong Chinese Orchestra incorporates traditional and modernized
Chinese instruments, as well as the occasional Western
instrument (especially in the percussion section), and
of the dozens of similar ensembles throughout China, is
generally acknowledged to be at the pinnacle.
Although they don’t play Bartók
per se, much of the folk-infused music has an occasional,
almost Slavic flavor, emphasizing the universal appeal
of certain rhythmic patterns and instrumental combinations.
Elegantly attired in long
black robes with white cuffs, the musicians seemed to
flow onstage, before plunging into the piquant, magical
Grand Victory, the oldest work on the program.
Opening with three gong strokes, the piece is marked
by dramatic percussion crescendos, and some extraordinary
effects, such as an ear-catching “laughing” in the winds,
all displaying a keen sense of color from the arranger,
Zhang Shiye. The work is intensely modal, with long iridescent
phrases that eventually accelerate, leading to a final
climax: a long held note, again in the winds.
As the musicians poured out a rock-steady tone,
Maestro Yan turned and smiled
to the audience while his left hand, almost with a life
of its own, directed the musicians behind him.
began composing in 1970, and in the early 1980s, scored
many well-known films such as Red Sorghum, Raise
the Red Lantern, and Farewell My Concubine.
As a boy he watched his father at his desk, painting
landscapes, and these memories inspired his Silk Road
Fantasia Suite for orchestra and solo guanzi,
here played by the modest Guo
Yazhi with amazing intensity.
The instrument looks like a small flute about twelve
inches long, but sounds uncommonly like a reedy saxophone
– indeed, some of the first movement, The Song of Baliu, resembled work by say, jazz great John Coltrane,
especially in some of the higher registers.
The second Lilt of the Ancient Roads begins
with a graceful pizzicato section for the gehus
(similar to low basses), followed by the presto
romp of The Music of Liangzhou
and then the sensual Dream of Loulan,
featuring an instrument that is sort of a cross between
a lute and a harp. The final section, Dance of Qiuci, is an exhilarating prestissimo
with prominent castanets, some of the few Western instruments
in the mix.
Tan Dun’s exciting Fire
Ritual was created in 1995 for this orchestra, which,
it should be noted, has requested new works at an astonishing
pace – over 6,000 commissioned pieces.
Fire Ritual features a continuing dialogue
between the onstage musicians and instrumental soloists
scattered around the hall.
It is solemn, dramatic and colorful, and in the
words of the composer, dedicated “for the memory of dear
friends who left us,” and more specifically, 300,000 Chinese
who were killed in the Nanjing
Massacre. The piece includes syllabic chanting from both
the musicians and conductor, an unusually gentle rustling
effect as the musicians’ turn the pages of their music
back and forth in unison, and the stark clack of rocks
knocked together. The
final movement uses the entire ensemble to evoke a huge
flock of birds. As
the huqin soloist, placed
center stage, the orchestra’s concertmaster Wong On-yuen was superbly focused and received a huge ovation.
Peng Xiuwen is known for his symphonic poems Flowing Water
and Nostalgia, also written in 1984, and has adapted
a number of Western compositions by Bizet,
Debussy, Stravinsky and Mussorgsky for Chinese orchestra.
Fantasia on Terra Cotta Warriors opens with
a gentle pizzicato, as an army is seen at dawn.
The sounds grow louder as the enemy forces approach,
climaxing with gongs and cymbals. The second movement depicts the soldiers missing
their wives, with wood blocks painting a quiet, lonely
evening sky, and a haunting passage for the guzheng,
a plucked stringed instrument played horizontally.
The final movement opens with a furious allegro,
before changing to a sober march as the sky darkens and
snow begins to fall. The orchestra’s musicians pulled out all the
stops in a stirring panorama of sound and emotion, and
once again were led with bracing, masterful control by
Maestro Yan. Over and over, one could only marvel at the
group’s sound, distinguished overall by a
lightness in much of the timbres, in apparent contradiction
to the number of musicians filling the stage.
The generous and intriguing
encores – virtually insisted on by the cheering audience
– were as much a highlight as the formal program.
The festivities began with a striking work by Doming
Lam, Buzzing bees making honey, a movement from
Insect World (1979) with portions that resembled
Ligeti, and continued with a traditional work from Northern
China called Horse Race (c. 1960s), before ending
with Stepping Higher, a traditional Cantonese favorite
done with irresistible energy.
In between, the orchestra surprised and delighted
us all with a brilliant arrangement – yes, for Chinese
instruments – of Glenn Miller’s American Patrol.
For more information: www.hkco.org, or in English: http://www.hkco.org/index_eng.asp