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Fu-Tong WONG (b.1948)
Shiau-Feng - Symphonic Poem [12:52]
*Symphony: The Hero with Great Eagle [63:35]
Taipei Philharmonic/Paul Tien-Chi Lin
*Voronezh State Symphony Orchestra/Mak Ka-lok
rec. Taipei National Concert Hall, 25 December 2007 [live]; *Symphony Hall, Voronezh, Russia, 26 January and 2 February 2004. DDD
ARCADIA 007 [76:27]

Experience Classicsonline

This release contains not only what is probably the only symphony ever written to have been based on a kung fu novel, but a symphonic poem based on a different kung fu novel! The disc was originally released on Taiwanese label Arcadia in July 2007. This same recording of The Hero with Great Eagle Symphony has since been repackaged and made available with a bonus DVD on Taiwanese composer Fu-Tong Wong's own label - see review.
Fu-Tong Wong is a Cantonese composer currently living in Taiwan. Initially self-taught, he emigrated to New York in the 1970s to help in his brother's noodle business, but was able to take a university degree in music from 1975. Since then he has published books on music theory and violin practice, taught and studied further, and written a fair amount of music, although even as late as 1990 he was still working in his brother's concern.
Both Shiau-Feng - transcribed as "Hsiao Feng" in the booklet - and The Hero with Great Eagle are based on martial arts novels by veteran Chinese author Louis Cha (b.1924), who writes under the pseudonym of Jin Yong, and who is reportedly the best-selling living Chinese novelist.
Shiau-Feng is an impressive, dramatic work very much in the European tradition of symphonic poems, showing little trace - a few gong crashes aside! - of its Chinese or its 21st century genesis. Well orchestrated and predominantly martial in nature, it is a direct descendant of Liszt's Hunnenschlacht and Robert Volkmann's Richard III Overture. According to the booklet, the work was begun in 1992 and has been revised six times. The 14:10 timing given on the CD for Shiau-Feng is wrong: it should read 12:52. Sound quality, though perfectly reasonable - there is very little audience noise, for example - is not entirely up to best European/American standards: the spaciousness of the recording verges at times on reverberation, and some minor distortion occurs when the brass plays loud. Also, and more regrettably, the music is faded down slightly in the very last second or two and then cut off, replaced with a misplaced percussive effect. The Taipei Orchestra gives a fairly good account of Wong's work, but it is not unkind to say that this is not one of the world's greatest ensembles.
The Symphony took Wong 28 years to complete, a feat of amazing dedication, but for the music-loving public it is worth the wait. The eight movements, which have both a traditional, primarily implicative Western-style title and a more poetic description, are as follows:
I. Prelude – A Rebellious Departure from the Monastery
II. Waltz – The Ancient Tomb Master and her Disciple
III. Variations – When a Man May be Called a Hero
IV. Adagio – The Greatest of Sorrows
V. Rondo – Practising Swordsmanship in the Billows of the Sea
VI. Fugue – What in Fact is Love
VII. Dance – Birthday Gifts Brought Forth by the Heroes
VIII. Fantasy – Reunion in the Valley
As the list suggests, each movement has a distinctive character, both formally and programmatically, but there is a pervasive mood of optimism throughout the work, with the exception of the Adagio, which is a beautiful elegy for strings. Surprisingly perhaps, the symphony has a very Western, at times almost neo-Classical feel - the light-handed orchestration is inventive without recourse to exotic instruments. It is not until the seventh movement that the music takes an obviously Chinese turn, when the galaxy of heroes turns up, as it were, but even here, the impression - agreeable, nonetheless - is of a Western composer adding ethnic colour.
Pick of the movements besides the Adagio are the Variations, epic in character, and the high-seas drama of the Rondo, but in truth there is not a dull moment for the listener, who is swept along with the flow of Wong's lovely music, which culminates in the lush final Fantasy. There is a definite film score quality about the work in places, particularly the Prelude and Rondo. This is quite apposite, given that Jin Yong's story has been adapted on no less than ten occasions for both big and small screen in the Far East. The unremitting succession of seamlessly incorporated melodic ideas, narrative interest and timbral imagination brings to mind the scores of Malcolm Arnold or William Alwyn, or, from an earlier age, Rimsky-Korsakov.
Sound quality is good, although there is a slight lack of definition to the strings in tutti sections - most noticeable in the strings-only Adagio movement. The Voronezh State Symphony Orchestra, despite its low profile, is one of Russia's oldest, with an impressive history of associations. It performs Wong's music capably and respectfully, and is well guided by Mak Ka-lok.
The CD booklet, written in Chinese and English, provides plenty of biographical information, but little on the two works. The CD itself may be difficult to come by, even on the internet. Fu-Tong Wong's own website may be the best place to make enquiries.
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