Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Chinese New Year of the Rooster @ Royal Festival Hall, London

9 February 2017

Royal Festival Hall

Royal Festival Hall (Photo: Victor Frankowski)

Thursday evening’s celebration of The Year of the Rooster was billed as a gala concert, so little logic to the programme was expected; it was perhaps more like a Music-Hall performance, with everyone presenting their star turns – though it was none the worse for that, and made for an interesting variety of cross-cultural listening.

The Philharmonia, under the sure direction of Long Yu, turned in some excellent performances of music from the Chinese New Culture Movement of the first half of the 20th century: Li Huanzhi’s boisterous Spring Festival Overture and Liu Tianhua’s haunting strings-only An enchanted night (the latter being a superlative example of the Mao-era adaptation of traditional Chinese music to a Western style, the original Ehru-type melody being played over a bass line and pizzicato strings). The style of this music is very approachable for Western listeners, as it was written by composers who trained in the European/American tradition; it has, though,  a slight tendency to the saccharine quality of music coming back the other way – the ‘oriental-scene’ music by Ketélby, Coleridge-Taylor, Norton and others.

The Chinese baritone Shenyang featured in the first half; he has a splendid voice – full of dark, warm sonorities – and he presented some excellent accounts of vocal numbers from a slightly dizzying mix of cultures that included the lyric Homesickness and the simple orchestra-accompanied melody Flowers in the morning mist (both by Huang Tzu), as well as Gounod’s Vous qui faites l’endormie from Faust, which he rendered with the moustache-twirling flamboyancy of a properly French Mephistopheles. His tour de force, though, was a spotless performance of Ves tabor spit from Rachmaninov’s rarely performed student-era opera Aleko, in which Shenyang demonstrated a sure sense of drama, balancing well the brooding soliloquy section with the soaringly romantic melodic material. His choice of the Welsh national anthem Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (with a verse each in Welsh and Chinese) as an encore was perhaps odd, but was strangely stirring to those of us with a multicultural sensibility.

The second half opened with Borodin’s Orienalist Polovtsian Dances, which The Philharmonia performed with the sort of unconscious excellence that would be expected of such an evergreen classic – and allowed some bravura theatrics from the percussion section.

The main work of the second half, though, was the Mao-era single-movement violin concerto The Butterfly Lovers by He Zhanhao and Chen Gang. It is a delightful piece –almost a tone poem, as it tells the story of separated lovers – that demonstrates perfectly the East-West fusion of styles, including grand brass iterations of the main theme, a charming violin and cello duet, a delicate cadenza for violin and piano, some breathtaking double-stopping work, and a smattering of portamento in imitation of the Chinese two-stringed bowed instruments. Maxim Vengerov performed the solo role with verve and tenderness, deserving well the tremendous applause he received.

The eleven-year-old Hong-Kong-born Paloma So has a number of high-profile concerto performances to her name, and, while it seemed appropriate for her to appear at a British/Chinese event, simply having her join Maxim Vengerov for the encore-lollipop violin duet Navarra by Pablo de Sarasate smacked of an afterthought, and, while the performance was first-rate, it imparted  the close of the evening with a little too much of the flavour of the Crummles troupe.

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