5 ancient Chinese instruments come alive in rousing Hong Kong concert inspired by China’s Dunhuang cave paintings
- The chiba, five-string pipa, xiqin, bili and lusheng starred in award-winning composer Tan Dun’s new work at a recent evening at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre
- Another original work by Tan performed saw the audience participate by playing birdsong from their phones, downloaded via QR code earlier in the evening
Award-winning composer Tan Dun returns to his musical journey inspired by the ancient murals in China’s Dunhuang caves, on the old Silk Road trade route, with a new work that sets out to revive the sound of five ancient Chinese woodwind and string instruments: the chiba, five-string pipa, xiqin, bili and lusheng.
The Five Muses of Dunhuang takes the wall paintings, some of which date back to the fourth century, as a reference and recreates a performance that Tan hopes will “transport the audience to another world”.
The work was the highlight of Sunday’s Sound of Dunhuang concert presented by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, which also included Tan’s Passacaglia: Secret of Wind and Birds and Stravinsky’s Fireworks and The Firebird Suite (1919 version).
While Tan’s 2018 work Buddha Passion, a six-part composition inspired by stories and teachings depicted on the cave murals, is contemplative in tone, The Five Muses of Dunhuang is bursting with cinematic colour, conjuring up images of the cultural melting pot that was the Silk Road.
Performed by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra under Tan’s baton, the piece unfolded seamlessly as five soloists – Ling Kwan-leung on the bili, Zhao Guanjie on the xiquin, Kenneth Sham on the chiba, Gao Sijia on the five-string pipa and Loo Sze-wang on the lusheng – took turns to be in the spotlight.
Their playing was excellent and blended into a score that was contemporary in sound: a touch of jazz here, a hint of Chinese folk music there, all to a rhythmic percussion beat reminiscent of Ravel’s Bolero. Loo stood out on the lusheng, giving a rousing and clear delivery of his passages, while Ling’s occasional dissonant notes added more colour and texture to a composition that is as much about harmony as it is discord.
Being a Tan composition, “organic sounds” of water, wood and human voices peppered the work.
The audience got to participate in the opening of Passacaglia: Secret of Wind and Birds, as they were asked to play, on their mobile phones, a one-minute digital recording of a “birdsong” that they downloaded off the internet via a QR code earlier. The chirping and twittering were actually made by Chinese instruments such as the dizi, suona, erhu, zheng and pipa. Though a tad gimmicky, the collective effort momentarily turned the concert hall into a thick forest.
The piece, which explores the relationship between humankind and nature in the digital age, was brisk in pace and another classic Tan composition as it welded both Western and Chinese musical vocabularies.
Stravinsky’s Fireworks and The Firebird Suite bookended the two original works and were chosen by Tan to symbolise healing and rebirth as the world slowly emerges from the coronavirus pandemic. And it worked. There is nothing more uplifting to the soul than being part of an evening of great music-making.
Sound of Dunhuang, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall. Reviewed July 17, 8pm.