Guilian Liu, pipa; Li Bo, horse hair lute, Claire Huangci, piano, VSO/ Perry So: Music by Zheng, Zhao, Li, and Xian, Orpheum, February 28, 2015.

This year’s two-concert VSO Pacific Rim Festival featured the music of China and Japan.  Since the famous Yellow River Concerto (1969) was performed, one had visions of some politics and related tensions entering the concert hall, since this work was resurrected as one of Mao’s nationalistic statements against the invasive Japanese.  But, of course, nothing transpired at all.  The younger Chinese seemingly look only to the new globalized China, and very few look back to the “Cultural Revolution” with the sort of nostalgia that, say, Europeans might look back at their past.  Some of them might not even glance back to the traditional works or instruments showcased at this concert, prizing Western gems instead.  When I spoke to Hong Kong conductor Perry So about whether his background gave him any additional inspiration when conducting this music, he responded in a way that may not be surprising given that many younger Chinese artists received their training abroad: “When we were young, all we knew were Bach, Brahms, and so on.  We are just getting to know many of these Chinese pieces ourselves.”

In any event, I found this concert quite delightful.  All the four works performed here had something of the same generic feeling.  Unlike some of the modern Asian pieces that strikingly use traditional instruments like the ancient Chinese sheng in quite abstract, experimental settings (Unsuk Chin, Hing-Yan Chan), these works all pay a healthy debt to the constructional techniques of traditional European and Russian romantic music, often inserting a few Chinese modes, and combining this with a dose of modern film music sentiment.  All have some dramatic anchor in brooding lower strings, some heartfelt (sometimes almost gushing) expression from the high strings, with pleasantly-chirpy woodwind and brass participating in upbeat rhythms.  If one heard each work in isolation, the naïveté of their design would be apparent, but when all are heard together, you seemingly get into the style.  Three of the works were concertos, so one important item that can propel involvement is the way in which the soloist plays off of the orchestral fabric. 

Conductor Perry So debuted with the VSO just last season, when he deputized for an indisposed John Storgards and gave a pretty riveting account of Sibelius’ First Symphony – a work that he had never conducted before!  Both his precision and fresh enthusiasm, coupled with his intuitive ability to shape and control the orchestral line, were amply noted at this concert too.

After the effervescent opener, Good News from Beijing, the first concerto was Zhao Jiping’s Pipa Concerto.  For the unfamiliar, the pipa is a four-string instruments that is akin to a mandolin or zither, and seemingly takes the best of both to produce a wide variety of ravishing sounds.  While the most well-known concertos for this instrument are those by Lou Harrison (1997) and Tan Dun (1999), this was Zhao’s second, and most recent offering, dedicated to Pudong-style pipa-virtuoso Wu Man.  Guilian Liu, a graduate of China’s Central Conservatory of Music and now a naturalized Canadian, was the performer, giving a strong rendering of the solo line, showing great care over her many tremolo passages and moving out with arresting dramatic strength when needed. This was most enjoyable.  The instrumental voice contrasted quite effectively with Zhao’s somewhat silky travelogue-style orchestral backdrop that brought to mind some of the colourful film scores that he wrote for Zhang Yimou in the 1990s, with a  hint as well of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez.  Liu’s performance was perhaps more ardent and strongly projected than those recently given by Wu Man -- who finds more poetry and intimacy -- but it was formidable by any standard.

Li Bo has played his composition for horse-hair lute and orchestra, The Tale of Matou Qin, a number of times in West Coast U.S. cities already.  The morin khuur is really quite an exotic instrument, played somewhat like a viola de gamba, the artist revealing that it has 120 strands of horse hair on the left and 160 on the right.  Dressed in his Mongolian garb, there could be little doubt that we were in the presence of a master.  Again the work had a rhapsodic, neo-romantic flavour with rustic winds and rhythms.  But the additional presence of somber Chinese watercolours made it interesting. Bo developed his part with clear authority, and he was never better than in the passages accompanied by piano at the end, capping this off with a wonderfully yearning solo.

So, finally on to Xian’s famous (or infamous) Yellow River Concerto, the piano concerto that arose as a four movement reduction of an eight movement cantata originally written in 1939, as inspired by 1960s politics.  Actually, the work has gained considerable currency in recent years, and there are quite a number of recordings of it.  It has always been known for its derivative compositional style, borrowing freely from Liszt, Chopin and Rachmaninoff, a fact that was brought out pungently on the record jacket of the early disc with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy.  It is also indelibly connected with Toru Takemitsu’s initial reaction: "How could a nation as great as China come up with a composition as such!"  In retrospect, it is probably no more derivative than a host of 19th C. piano concertos written by now-forgotten contemporaries of Chopin or Liszt.

The work’s solo part is demanding and 24 year old pianist Claire Huangci, who often performs to acclaim in Germany these days, tore into it like a real tiger.  It would be difficult to think of many pianists with this type of agility and rhythmic accuracy, and she approached the work with great commitment and enthusiasm.    I did not get tired of this.  The second movement conjured up something like the fragrances of Falla’s Nights in the Garden of Spain, while also inspiring a carefree, happy feeling.  The last movement of course was a virtuoso tour de force with plenty of surge and visceral excitement.

This concert was a joy primarily because of the artistry and commitment of the soloists and the sheer judgment of conductor Perry So.  There was such a fine balance within the conductor’s orchestral contributions, nurturing the clean lines, motion and beauty in each composition but being very careful to never push into emotional excess.  His rapport with the soloists was impeccable.  The music was obviously not top-drawer but I relaxed more and more with it, eventually finding it somewhat charming.  The encore was Li Huanzhi’s Spring Festival Overture (1955), a very popular piece in mainland China, and actually the music broadcast into space for China’s first lunar probe in 2007.  Having a little of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol in it, this closed the celebration nicely with a touch of swagger.

© Geoffrey Newman 2015