Compared with its annual Opera Festival, which is largely a bid for international attention, the China Orchestral Festival at Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts is a more domestic affair. The three-week symphonic biennale, a sampling of orchestra life from across China’s provinces, ended its fourth incarnation on Wednesday by showcasing the Centre’s resident orchestra.
Since its founding in 2010, the NCPA Orchestra has become a fine operatic pit band as well as a symphonic presence in its own right. So too has its identity been shaped by the local-global dialectic of the Chinese diaspora. Nearly half of its all-Chinese membership had sought musical training and professional experience abroad.
Wednesday’s programme, with founding music director Chen Zuohuang returning to the podium, seemed to celebrate the orchestra’s distinctive character. Elements of east and west, as well as both the concert and dramatic stage, flowed freely and, once past a rocky start in Weber’s Oberon Overture – the musical solidity of Chinese string playing often eludes wind and brass instruments – performances mostly followed suit.
The evening’s chief draw was the Asian premiere of Zhao Jiping’s Pipa Concerto No. 2 featuring a rare return by Wu Man, a Central Conservatory-trained soloist and perhaps China’s most famous traditional instrumentalist living abroad. Not that Zhao’s piece, more of a 20-minute orchestral rhapsody with featured soloist than a proper concerto, was in any way traditional. An early exponent of Chinese internationalism, Zhao garnered acclaim for his landmark film scores for directors Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige in the 1990s, where his twin influences of Chinese instrumental timbre and Russianesque ballet narrative found an effective medium.
The Pipa Concerto, originally premiered last year by the Sydney Symphony and co-commissioned by a consortium of US orchestras, draws heavily on Wu Man’s persona as a global Chinese figure, essentially combining elements of pingtan – a style of local narrative singing – with its Hollywood approximation. Although the pipa was often heard in its traditional role, accompanying the arching lines of the orchestra, Wu’s lyrical playing frequently provided the narration as well.
In response to Zhao’s rather diffused Russian references, the evening took a full turn in Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. As with the Pipa Concerto, Chen conducted with more expansiveness than clarity, but the performance never stopped chugging forward.