Classical music

Review: Tan Dun's Nu Shu opens the Hong Kong Philharmonic's season

Tan's music communicated a refreshing blend of simplicity and complexity, and an entirely original world of sound

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 September, 2015, 10:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 September, 2015, 9:43pm

In a gutsy move, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra opened its season with two recent works by a living artist, Hunan-born composer Tan Dun. His music communicated a refreshing blend of simplicity and complexity, and an entirely original world of sound.

The Symphonic Poem on 3 Notes rose from nothingness with ghostly scrabbling in the strings. Chimes intoned the three titular notes, "la si do", followed by the same for brass chorale. Inventive variations on this simple idea ensued.

The players sang and shouted the three notes with conviction. Metallic percussion (suspended discs nicknamed "brake gongs") and struck metal pipes added bright notes. Chinese-style slides were gracefully done.

Nu Shu: the Secret Songs of Women featured the bold playing of harpist Elizabeth Hainen along with clips filmed by Tan of women from Hunan province singing in a secret language now on the verge of extinction.

It's a challenge to balance the elements in a multimedia work. A scene of women and girls washing clothes in the river had an exhilarating rhythm under a sweeping melody. However, the orchestra obscured the details of the singing, and the film distracted from the live players.

Tuning didn't precisely match, leaving the dubious impression that the women were off-key. Tan's imagination, however, amplified the world of the singers very movingly.

Victor Li Zeyu, 19, performed Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor with a youthful sweetness of sound, crisp bowing and unerring accuracy. He started with a delicate wisp of melody that didn't reach the molto appassionato indicated in the score, being closer to non troppo or "not too" passionate.

This should have been a gem of a performance, but it was marred by lack of synchronisation between the orchestra and soloist.

Alexis Alrich


HK Philharmonic Orchestra, Cultural Centre Concert Hall

Reviewed: September 3