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October 21, 2013 5:49 pm
Of all the techniques scholars have used to illuminate the ancient Jiu Ge, a set of 11 mystical Chinese texts mysteriously known as Nine Songs, one of the least explored has been dressing the deities mentioned in formal attire and recreating their courtship rituals in the concert hall.
Likewise, while western orchestral-vocal narratives have moved well beyond Biblical legends, the search for suitable source material has rarely embraced China. As such, Zhou Long’s Nine Odes – a setting of the complete Jiu Ge that had its world premiere on Saturday at the Beijing Music Festival – stands out as the most unlikely addition to the repertory since Stravinsky tapped the Oedipus legend and Orff’s Carmina Burana showcased the irreverent scribblings of a pack of medieval clerics.
Nine Odes is Zhou’s most substantial work since winning the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Madame White Snake (another Beijing Festival commission, with the now-defunct Opera Boston), aiming at much the same goals while taking precisely the opposite approach. Where White Snake recounts its story in English, the production similarly hauling an ancient legend into the modern world, Nine Odes keeps its original language firmly rooted in the past. Where the earlier opera generated momentum by juxtaposing aggressively modernist solo singing with more populist settings in the orchestra and chorus, Nine Odes maintains a unified symphonic language.
None of this makes it any easier to categorise. Lacking an operatic storyline, Nine Odes also eschews the chorus of a standard oratorio (despite hints of a chorus in the text). By default, it is a 75-minute symphonic song-cycle, something akin to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde , though its textural coherence and panoply of narrative voices belie the comparison.
Zhou vocally fashions his deities in recognisably western terms. Soprano Ying Huang’s Goddess of Fate floated lyrically above the orchestra, while mezzo-soprano Ning Liang’s Lady of the River flowed with earthy vocalism. Despite a prior announcement of illness (and a general look of discomfort), tenor Warren Mok’s falsetto made a dramatically muted contrast to baritone Chen-Ye Yuan’s heroic delivery, and conveyed a surprisingly shamanistic quality in the text.
From a single hearing, it is hard to discern whether Zhou’s text-painting forges any new literary insights. Musically, though, Nine Odes is a solid accomplishment. Conductor Lin Daye led the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra with supreme control, deftly bringing out lucidity in purely symphonic terms.
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