Hong Kong Arts Festival 2015

Chinese Orchestra shrugs off controversy with a stirring performance

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 March, 2015, 10:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 March, 2015, 5:09pm





The city’s flagship ensemble showed no sign of a recent mutiny as it unleashed a powerful sound in the absence of three backbone players in a performance for the Hong Kong Arts Festival.

The drama of defiance and the resulting dismissal of Hsin Hsiao-ling, Hsin Hsiao-hong and Liu Yang, respectively veteran principals of the gaohu, erhu, and zhonghu sections, unfolded so rapidly that the trio were still on the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra roster in the house programme at the Saturday night concert. Next to their names was an asterisk denoting “not taking part in this concert”.

Despite the rancour, the 80-plus members performed in top form under the baton of artistic director Yan Huichang, who appeared unaffected by the aborted coup that had called for his immediate resignation.

Featuring two full concertos and four orchestral works, the programme was ambitiously long. Except for a toddler’s cry (no idea how his parents got him in since the minimum age for audience members was six), the audience was attentive throughout. It was no easy feat for both performers and audiences to sit through works which were relatively new.

The two concertos, for example, were premiered just a year ago. A reprise affirmed their artistic worth for a second hearing in the presence of original soloists and composers. In Blue Sky the Heart, local composer Clarence Mak told an old Hong Kong story through his guitar and the full Chinese orchestra. Slightly amplified, the delicate sound of the Western instrument conveyed a lone voice against the full orchestra that yielded interesting effects, especially in the passage with solo erhu, pipa and dizi before the coda.

Even more dazzling was the young Singaporean soloist Clara Tan Su-min who returned to showcase her mastery in the ruan, a four-string Chinese lute, through the Zhongruan Concerto No 2 by Liu Xing, her Shanghai-based mentor. The incessant minimalist lines throughout the three movements were next to impossible but the slender soloist tackled it with ease and on a brisker tempo than last year’s premiere.

The four orchestral works featured a wide array of styles and orchestrations that took time to digest in one go. The concert opener, Festivities, by Beijing composer Wang Ning was a collection of folk styles from around China blended into one organic whole. Contrasting moods and sonic effects abounded, but the transitions leading to the solo suona and jinghu passages were superb. Soviet-trained veteran composer Zhu Jianer’s A Sorrowful Tune began with the weeping sound of solo xun, a clay mouthpiece, and built up the pathos into a massive ending reminiscent of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.

The most adventurous was Impressions of Yungang Grottoes by Cheng Dazhao who turned to rocks and the human voice for exotic effects to depict the Buddha stone craves in Shanxi. The music of the nomadic Xianbei tribe was orchestrated to great effect. Equally exotic was the last of Guo Wenjing’s West Yunnan trilogy. The primal vigour was audacious, intoxicating the audience with the unique sonority no other orchestra could produce.