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May 12, 2014 2:24 pm
Zhao Jiping’s billing as the John Williams of China is hardly an exact fit, but comparisons are easy enough to find. Both composers have led organisations steeped in musical vernacular (Zhao’s Shaanxi Song and Dance Theatre roughly matching Williams’s Boston Pops), and both have become associated with certain film directors (with Zhao characterising Zhang Yimou’s work nearly as much as Williams has defined Steven Spielberg’s).
Zhao may make it to the concert stage more often than Williams, but an all-Zhao concert is still something of a rarity. Besides serving as a career retrospective, Saturday’s programme also chronicled the composer’s relationship with the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, which had commissioned two of the pieces.
Once past Festival in Chang’an, an overture from the early 1980s brimming with boisterous orchestral clichés, the evening fell into a more clearly discernible language. Though often derided as cinematic, Zhao’s music embodies two great values running throughout Chinese music: first, the importance of melody above all, and second, the urge to depict a coherent narrative.
Even The True Hearted, a 2004 erhu concerto ostensibly in sonata form, unfolded as an atmospheric journey toward zen enlightenment. Soloist Zhang Chongxue offered a masterly range of timbre and conductor Yan Huichang kept a tight rein on the orchestra, letting the tension build gradually to great effect.
A harder-won triumph came in Melody of the Secluded Orchid, an HKCO commission from 2011. Based on a song traditionally ascribed to Confucius, Zhao’s concert aria places a solo soprano midway between a guqin, the ancient zither favoured by traditional literati, and a violin, the instrument favoured by Chinese audiences today. Soprano Zhang Ningjia, violinist Chai Liang and guqin soloist Zhao Jiazhen performed in all possible combinations, while the orchestra moved from simple underscoring to framing and later driving the emotional state. Rather than referencing the cinema, it hinted at Zhao’s potential on the stage.
The remaining works reshuffled the composer’s timbral conceptions of east and west with mixed results. Zhuang Zhou’s Dream, a 2008 HKCO commission originally premiered with Yo-Yo Ma, was here smoothly recast with soloist Tung Hiu-lo on the gehu (a modern crossing of Chinese bowed instruments with the modern cello). By contrast, the Silk Road Fantasia, a bravura rhapsody originally showcasing rustic Chinese wind instruments, here featured soprano saxophone soloist Christian Wirth, whose playing remained a bit too elegantly buttoned-down for the joyous abandon around him.
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