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Seen and Heard International Concert Review


Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra in New York: Guo Yazhi, Guanzi, Wong On-yuen, Huqin, 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 Province (1957)
Zhao Jiping: Silk Road Fantasia Suite for Guanzi and Chinese Orchestra (1983)
Tan Dun: Fire Ritual for Huqin and Chinese Orchestra (1995)
Peng Xiuwen: 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 pipas (resembling 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.

Zhao Jiping 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.


Bruce Hodges



For more information: www.hkco.org, or in English: http://www.hkco.org/index_eng.asp






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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)