German composer Zollitsch triumphs with traditional Chinese works

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 December, 2014, 6:03am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 December, 2014, 6:03am

Tante: Uneasy and Beyond
Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra
Cultural Centre Concert Hall

Two concerts at the weekend will go down in history as the first programme of all traditional Chinese works by a non-Chinese composer.

Munich-born composer Robert Zollitsch, better known as Lao Luo, showed his extraordinary grasp of the depth and subtlety of Chinese music and blended it with his own German symphonic tradition. The effect was a refreshingly rich musical texture superbly interwoven by all sections of the 85-member Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra.

A Country Walk, the short charming concert opener, showcased that remarkable blend of East and West in which the walking rhythm played by various sections was brilliant enough to turn this new work into a classic.

But the limelight belonged to his soprano wife Gong Linna. Without a microphone, she delivered two sets of songs by her husband in some of the most varied contexts and challenging styles imaginable.

In the world premiere of A Medley of Folk Songs from Northern Shaanxi, Gong's impeccable articulation and diction brought out the time-honoured folk style of the so-called yellow earth region. Her melancholy tone in the first two love songs came through affectionately and, in the third on Yellow River Boatmen, powerfully but effortlessly. It was almost a miracle for her voice to stay above in the climaxes against thunderous percussion.

The orchestral interludes between verses were beautiful, calling to mind the song cycles by Gustav Mahler. The resemblance was especially striking in Songs of Love, the work that made the couple's Hong Kong debut in 2010.

Oddly, Gong lost the vocal power when she sang with a microphone in the second half. It was useful in leading the full-house audience, on their feet, to an exercise of breathing and singing. But when the diva sang against the full orchestra plus chorus and two drum bands, the music was reduced to sound if not noise. All this was saved by Gong's lovely encore, Flowing Creek, delivered in style.

Of the two concertos that premiered, the one for suona captured special attention when soloist Niu Jiandang appeared on crutches due to a car accident. His misery worked perfectly with the music that told the sad but heroic story of the ill-fated assassin of the First Qin Emperor.

The opening tremolo strings set the scene depicting the River Yi, where the suicidal mission began. Niu's tantalising playing and singing of the famous poem was a spectacle on its own.