Tan Dun, Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra —
Stravinsky / Tan Dun / Ren Tongxiang
KKL, Lucerne, 2019-01-27
The second orchestral concert that Migros Kulturprozent Classics organized in 2019 actually was a tour of three concerts in Geneva, Zurich, and finally this one at the Lucerne Culture and Congress Centre (KKL). At the center of this short tour was the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra did not perform under the direction of its Music Director, Yu Long (*1964). Rather, it was led by the composer-conductor Tan Dun (*1957, see also Wikipedia).
Prominent artists have described the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra as the “best sounding symphony orchestra in all of China”. Founded in 1957, it is a relatively young ensemble. From looking at the ensemble, I had the impression that the orchestra (a fairly large ensemble that filled the stage in the KKL) has a healthy proportion of young musicians. This may be the result of the fact that since 2011, the orchestra founded an affiliated youth orchestra, the Guangzhou Symphony Youth Orchestra. This not only offers an entry point into the profession for young orchestra musicians, it also ensures a steady supply of qualified members to the main orchestra.
Tan Dun ( 谭盾 / 譚盾, *1957) is well-known both as a conductor and as a contemporary classical composer. In both these functions, we could experience him in this concert. Born in the province Hunan in China, he was fascinated by music very early on. However, because of the Cultural Revolution, he was discouraged from pursuing his primary interest. Instead, he worked as a rice planter, while still familiarizing with traditional Chinese instruments, which he also learned to play.
When several members of the Beijing opera troupe died in a ferry accident, Tan Dun was called in as a violinist and arranger. This also earned him a seat in the orchestra. At age 20, he started studying at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, where he came into contact with prominent Chinese and Western composers.
1986 he moved to New York City to become a doctoral student at Columbia University. This also deepened his contacts with and knowledge of prominent Western composers, most notably the prominent exponents of minimal music. His primary activities as a composer are in the area of opera / theater, film / multimedia, but equally concertos, orchestral and chamber music works. One of his specialties is in what he calls “Organic Music”: music for instruments made from stone / ceramics, paper, water.
At its core, the concert program featured two Chinese compositions. The first one is a symphonic poem by the conductor, Tan Dun, with piano & qingyi (also guimen dan, a female role in Chinese opera). The second one is a piece by Ren Tongxiang, with the suona (also called laba or haidi, a Chinese sorna) as solo instrument. The program opened and closed with compositions by Igor Stravinsky:
- Pre-Concert: “Our Stars of Tomorrow” — Cosmic Percussion Ensemble (see the bottom of the article)
- Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971): Feu d’artifice, op.4 (1908)
- Tan Dun (*1957): “Farewell My Concubine” – Symphonic Poem for Piano & Qingyi
- Ren Tongxiang (*1926): Hundreds of Birds Paying Homage To The Phoenix (arrangement by Guan Xia)
- Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971): Suite “L’oiseau de feu” (1919)
I’ll mention the soloists and their instruments in the respective sections below.
Note: in Chinese names, the last name comes first, the first (given) name last: in “Western order”, the names here would really be Dun Tan, Lian Wenqing, Liu Wenwen, Tongxiang Wen, and so on. However, in order to avoid confusion, I simply keep mentioning both names, leaving them in “Chinese order”.
The concerts of Migros Kulturprozent Classics in Lucerne often attract audiences from more rural areas—people that otherwise rarely attend concerts. It was almost predictable that the venue would not be sold out, especially given that there was a show celebrating the Chinese New Year in the same venue just the night before.
My wife and I had seats in the center of row 21 in the parquet seating. These are among the very best that one can get in this venue. Actually, there aren’t really any bad seats in this hall, just maybe areas close to (or behind) the podium, where the sound may be less balanced (albeit still excellent, nevertheless). With the exception of one press photo in the last section, the pictures labeled as the author’s below were all taken using an iPhone from our seats (during applause only, in order to avoid upsetting the watchguards). Apologies for their poor quality: I will try improving on that in the future.
Stravinsky: Feu d’artifice, op.4 (1908)
Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971) composed his Feu d’artifice, op.4 in 1908. He described it as a “short orchestral fantasy”. The composition was a wedding present for Nadezhda and Maximilian Steinberg. Nadezhda was the daughter of Stravinsky’s teacher and mentor Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844 – 1908). The composer died a few days after the wedding. Feu d’artifice (Fireworks) premiered in 1909. The piece and its colorful instrumentation motivated the critic, patron and ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev (1872 – 1929) to commission Stravinsky to write the music for the ballet “The Firebird” (L’oiseau de feu). This ended the official part of the concert program.
A fresh encounter with and first impressions from this orchestra: excellent coordination, clear sound, rich in colors. I did not view this as a particularly “Eastern”, let alone “Chinese” interpretation: Tan Dun has had enough Western education to meet the expectations that we put into Stravinsky’s music. He followed the composer’s tempo annotations, knowing that the orchestra would easily master this music. The focus of the performance was on the colors, the rich, often eruptive dynamics, rather than on dissecting the music by highlighting the ultimate detail in articulation. Still, the ensemble retained the necessary transparency to expose the richness in Stravinsky’s instrumentation.
To me, one obvious difference to top local orchestras seemed to be in the brighter string sound, which might have more of a silky tone. However, this music may not be suitable to expose such qualities.
Compared to the world’s top orchestras, the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra may not quite have the ultimate coherence and warmth in the strings, the same density of sound. The performance was impressive nevertheless, particularly in the dynamics, the momentum. An excellent piece to start a concert, for sure!
Tan Dun: “Farewell My Concubine” – Symphonic Poem for Piano & Qingyi
The initial motivation for Tan Dun’s Symphonic Poem “Farewell My Concubine” was the 120th birthday of Mei Lanfang (1894 – 1961), a prominent Beijing Opera artist, known as “Queen of Beijing Opera” and exclusively known for his female lead roles. In 2008, the film director Chen Kaige (*1952) made the film “Forever Enthralled” based on Mei Lanfang’s biography.
The most famous one of Chen Kaige’s films is Farewell My Concubine, from 1993. It won numerous awards, most notably at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival. The plot of that film can be seen as related to Mei Lanfang’s career and life, and it also relates to Beijing Opera. It was actually that film which familiarized many viewers in Europe and America with Beijing Opera.
In 2015, Tan Dun took motifs / actions from the film and translated them back into ancient historic context, creating his Symphonic Poem for Piano & Qingyi “Farewell My Concubine”. Rather than trying to relate the plot of the film with that of the Symphonic Poem, let me just give the short version, an excerpt from Tan Dun’s explanation to the audience: the piano (and the orchestra) impersonate the king Xiang Yu (died 202 b.C.), the Qingyi (a female role in Chinese opera, also known as guimen dan) his lover / concubine Yuji. In short: the concubine sacrifices her life, such that the king can win the battle. “The king lost the battle, but the concubine (through her suicide) won the people / people’s hearts.”
In selecting the piano (“the king of the instruments”) for the role of the king, Tan Dun at the same time is depicting the dialog, the interaction between East (Beijing Opera singer) and West (piano).
However, one should not expect a piano concerto: even though the solo part was quite demanding, the piano (Steinway D-274) shared its “role in the play” with the orchestra.
Wenqing Lian, Beijing Opera singer, grew up in Shanghai. It’s hard to impossible to find biographic details on this singer through Internet search, etc.; let me therefore just give the visual impression—as seen from the rear of the hall. Wenqing Lian, the person very much hides behind the heavily stylized role, a very colorful face / decorated head, and even more intense colors in her dresses: a beautiful, bright yellow, silken cape, turning bright orange and red towards the bottom. Later, for the symbolic dance with the sword(s), the singer put that cape aside and performed in a white robe, again richly decorated in bright green and purple. The view alone was very attractive, fascinating.
I. Drammatico (the evening prior to the decisive battle)
An interesting start, just knocking sounds, created by beating the mouthpiece of the bass tuba with the flat hand! The tuba (now blown properly) rapidly gains momentum and drama, accompanied by piano and percussion. That was just the initial setting. The “action” soon turns static, building up intense tension, even suspense, through the contrast between a slow, chorale like melody in the bass tuba, later moving into cellos and double basses, while the piano plays scarce, isolated and dissonant chords, very much reminding of piano music by Olivier Messiaen (1908 – 1992).
The upcoming battle is depicted / anticipated by a vehement, strongly rhythmic segment. This is virtuosic on the piano, rebellious in the percussion. More Messiaen chords lead over to alarming glissando waves in the strings—the foreboding of a storm, or the battle? There still is this beautiful chorale melody, though, now in the high woodwinds. Throughout that first part, the Qingyi stood at the right edge of the stage, her back turned towards the audience, motionless, rolled into her bright yellow cape.
II. Andante molto
Gentle sounds from the orchestra, manually dampened and flageolet sounds from the piano. The Qingyi appeared to wake up, almost unnoticeably moving towards the center. She slowly expanded her arms, exposing her beautiful cape, initially still facing the orchestra. Periodically, the music livened up, turned more and more emotional—a love scene at night. At the same time, Wenqing Lian started singing, with a very stylized voice. She was exclusively using the head register, yet easily projecting through the venue, through all of the orchestra. To those hearing this music for the first time will find it most unusual, might perhaps associate it with performances of the Duetto buffo di due gatti by Gioacchino Rossini (1792 – 1868). Except that Beijing Opera singing rarely involves fixed pitch notes.
The Qingyi drops her cape, now performs the dance of the swords, in highly stylized and controlled motions. Even the movements of every finger are following a carefully laid out script. As much action as there is in the orchestra / percussion and the virtuosic piano part, with her dance and singing, the Qingyi attracts all of the listener’s attention. She almost degrades piano and orchestra to mere accompaniment. Loud percussion depicts drama and action (the movements of the dancer remain controlled and stylized throughout), the action culminates in the (still stylized) suicide, while on the piano the Messiaen sounds return.
IV. Andante molto
In the final farewell/ghost dance, the piano part switches to a high- and late-romantic tune, reminding of peaceful Préludes by Chopin, maybe Rachmaninoff. This felt like a big question mark—and an interesting farewell, for sure!
It’s hard to rate the performance, as I personally don’t have a reference to compare this with, especially as far as the singer is concerned. For all I can tell, however, the experience was most interesting, the performance flawless (certainly in orchestra and in the piano part), especially in terms of coordination and coherence: conclusive, enthralling—an experience not to miss!
Overall Rating: ★★★★½
Ren Tongxiang: Hundreds of Birds Paying Homage To The Phoenix
The composer Ren Tongxiang (*1926) grew up in the province of Shandong, in China’s Northeast. That region is apparently well-known for its richness in instrumental music and ensembles. A prominent one of these instruments is the suona (also called laba or haidi, a Chinese sorna). It’s a double-reed instrument that one might compare to the European oboe. It is shorter, however. Different from the oboe, it ends in a metal bell (brass or copper). It’s sound does remind of that of the oboe, even though it lacks the oboe’s lowest register. More importantly, the suona easily permits varying the pitch in glissando style, which makes it resemble Beijing Opera singing in some ways.
Ren Tongxiang’s most famous composition is Hundreds of Birds Paying Homage To The Phoenix, or Hundreds of Birds Paying Tribute To The Phoenix. The concert handout simplified this to Hundreds of Birds Flying Towards The Phoenix. The music describes how numerous birds compete with each other in trying to imitate the singing, the movements of the legendary Phoenix.
The performance used an arrangement by the Chinese composer Guan Xia (关峡 / 關峽, *1957). Ren Tongxiang’s original composition is for suona and chamber ensemble.
The suona part in Ren Tongxiang’s composition was performed by Wenwen Liu, a young artist who—like the composer—grew up in the province of Shandong. Members of her family have been playing the suona for over 300 years. She first learned the instrument from her parents, then continued her studies at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. She finished as the first student on this instrument. After winning several national competitions, Wenwen Liu has launched a successful career as virtuoso on the suona. Here, Wenwen Liu was switching between two instruments, with differences in the pitch and the tonal characteristics.
How does it sound and feel? Well, the best I can say is that the music was as interesting and fascinating as the one preceding the intermission! For us Europeans, this work is certainly easier to get into. Sure, the suona has exotic aspects compared to the oboe, with its “floating pitch” and the penetrating sound. However, in some ways, it also reminded of the Scottish bagpipe (minus the drones, of course), e.g., in the rapidity of the figurations,, the ornaments.
And then, of course, the music itself! In the accompaniment, there were segments that sounded like an interesting mix of romantic, and maybe impressionist, along with Scottish / Irish folk tunes in the harmonies. On top of that, the solo, assisted by high woodwinds in the orchestra, produced a fascinating, even stunning, multifaceted sequence of bird imitations: none of the European instruments could possibly compete with this! At the same time, the music is strongly rhythmic, full of momentum and drive, even accelerating in the second part.
The most stunning part was Wenwen Liu’s virtuosity, the variability, the agility, and often the sheer speed of her playing, especially in the extended, acrobatic cadenza in the second part. The variety of bird imitations was simply amazing, from very small birds up to big ones, whose singing sometimes resembled the howling of wolves! I doubt that the soloist used circular breathing. Still, the cadenza ended in a single tone that was so long that people in the audience started laughing, because they could not believe this was happening before their very eyes!
Stravinsky: Concert Suite for Orchestra No.2 “L’oiseau de feu” (1919)
As indicated above, Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971) composed his ballet “L’oiseau de feu” (The Firebird) in 1910, soon after “Feu d’artifice” (Fireworks). It was Serge Diaghilev (1872 – 1929) who commissioned this work, for his ballets. 1911, the composer extracted a concert suite with five movements, the “Concert Suite for Orchestra No.1”. This used an instrumentation that was almost identical to that of the original ballet. Here, the Infernal Dance of King Kashchei appeared as the final movement.
In 1919, the Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet (1883 – 1969) commissioned a suite based on different parts of the ballet. This then formed the second, 1919 version of the Suite, also called Concert Suite for Orchestra No.2 “L’oiseau de feu” (1919). This now has the Infernal Dance of King Kashchei as the central movement, see below.
Later, in 1945, Stravinsky created yet another version, the “Ballet Suite for Orchestra”, in which he added more movements from the ballet, changed the instrumentation, and simplified the notation. This concert featured the second, 1919 version of the Suite.
The Movements in the 1919 Version
- The Firebird and its Dance — The Firebird’s Variation
- The Princesses’ Khorovod (Rondo)
- Infernal Dance of King Kashchei
- Berceuse (Lullaby): Andante
- Finale: Lento maestoso — Allegro non troppo — Maestoso
Instrumentation: 2 flutes / piccolo, 2 oboes / cor anglais, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, xylophone, harp, piano (opt. celesta), strings.
Without the concert grand and the soloists gone, the focus now turned onto conductor and the orchestra.
Tan Dun often conducted with baton, but then again with his bare hand, holding the baton downwards in his left hand. His movements did not follow academic standards, nevertheless clearly marked the first beats in every bar. The orchestra never had problems following his intent, the coordination was flawless throughout. Tan Dun’s tempo felt natural at all times, certainly never was too slow or sluggish. And he consistently kept and increased the tension and suspense up to the Infernal Dance.
To me, it was striking to see how much all musicians in the orchestra played with focus, attention and concentration, from the first to the last desk in all string sections. I felt that this was more than education, drill and a tight rehearsing schedule: rather, the orchestra demonstrated the will to deliver an excellent performance. The ensemble’s engagement persisted through the challenging tempo in the Infernal Dance, with only very few “incidents” in the brass section. Tan Dun’s tempo was indeed challenging, even relentless. However, where fast figures / motifs started to sound blurred, this was a deliberate glissando effect on the trombones, as specified in the score.
For the most part, it was probably impossible to tell from the sound that this was a Chinese or Eastern orchestra. Only momentarily, the sound of the trumpets (with mutes?) remotely reminded me of the preceding suona playing. I was not irritated by this, rather amused by the idea.
Conductor and orchestra were excellent in bringing forward the impressionist aspects in Stravinsky’s music, such as momentarily in the second half of the Infernal Dance, or in the Lullaby that follows: I strongly reminded me of soundscapes by Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918), such as La Mer, L.109, and other works. The enchanted, impressionist sound and atmosphere persisted through most of the Finale with its glorious, majestic ending.
Encore 1 — Tan Dun: Passacaglia “Secret of Wind and Birds” (2015)
Tan Dun could not resist offering encores, of course. Frst, he presented a work that he created himself: the Passacaglia “Secret of Wind and Birds”. This is a composition that Carnegie Hall commissioned specifically for the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America. Needless to say that as a composition for youth orchestra, this is a true “hit”—a very pictorial composition! It starts with a trombone solo, while in the accompaniment, the orchestra depicts winds at varying strength, from gentle breezes to howling storms, using asynchronous glissando and flageolets, gently moving the fingers up and down, barely touching the strings.
After a series of sad trombone motifs, all musicians in the orchestra pull out their smartphones to produce a multitude of subtle bird songs: an excellent idea! In addition, the percussionists use special birdsong imitation instruments (some probably water-filled). The piece then moves into a serene, reflecting mood, with pizzicato and harps. The music finally picks up momentum again, turns more rhythmic, even enthralling, into syncopated, Jazz-like ending.
Encore 2 — Li Huanzhi: “Spring Festival Suite”, Overture – Da Yang Ge
Li Huanzhi (李焕之, 1919 – 2000) is a Chinese composer who grew up in Hong Kong. Among his most prominent works is the “Spring Festival Suite“, and within that, as Tan Dun explained, the overture (Da Yang Ge / 序曲—大秧歌) is so well-known throughout China that literally almost everyone will instantly start humming along. The tempo annotation for the overture is Allegro con fuoco – Moderato grazioso – Allegro (the suite features three more movements: 2. Andante cantabile — 3. Rondo — 4. Moderato). Both the celebration of the Chinese New Year, as well as the composer’s 100th birthday, along with the popularity of the melody, were more than mere pretense to end the program with this piece!
Indeed, one can understand the popularity of this piece: catchy melodies, enthralling and jazzy in the rhythm! And here, at last, the strings were given a real chance to expose their strength, good sound (in a piece that the orchestra of course know inside out!). In the second part (Moderato grazioso), the cor anglais has a slightly melancholic melody. It reminded me of music by Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904), such as from his Symphony No.9 in E minor, “From the New World”. With the very rhythmic ending, this was the ideal “last dance” for this event!
In Stravinsky’s music, one may find more compelling performances. However, the Chinese compositions made this a memorable, truly worthwhile concert—thanks to all the artists!
Pre-Concert: Cosmic Percussion Ensemble
Most of the concerts that the Foundation Migros Kulturprozent Classics organizes in Zurich and Lucerne start with a “pre-concert”. These don’t take place in the main concert venue, but rather in a smaller hall. In Lucerne, the pre-concerts happen in the “Auditorium”, a small, theater-like hall with ascending audience seating and a small stage.
In these pre-concerts, the foundation offers a concert stage to young, promising artists. This is part of the foundation’s support program for what they see as their “Stars of Tomorrow”.
Most of the pre-concerts feature one instrumentalist or singer: the ones that I attended so far featured two cellists (one solo, and one in a duo with piano), and a singer (with piano accompaniment). This instance now was a little different, as we heard an entire ensemble—of percussionists, the “Cosmic Percussion Ensemble“. This is a group of six percussion students at the ZHdK (Zurich University of the Arts).
The ensemble formed in 2015. The idea for the name came from a performance of the 1978 composition “Pléïades” by Iannis Xenakis (1922 – 2001). The Pleïades is a star formation that bases its name on ancient Greek Mythology. This led to the “cosmic” in the ensemble’s name, which appears in a variety of configurations from 2 to 6 instrumentalists, covering the entire bandwidth of percussion instruments. The musicians are mentored by Klaus Schwärzler, professor at the ZHdK and member of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. In this pre-concert, we heard a formation of five musicians, with two marimbas (both covering 5 octaves), one vibraphone, cajón, cymbal, 4 bar stools and various smaller percussion instruments, such as triangle, wood block, chime tree, etc.
The six members of the ensemble are Tilmann (Tilo) Bogler (*1994), Thomas Büchel (*1986), Janic Sarott (*1992), Ryuhei Sunaga (*1989), Lukas Rechsteiner (1988), and Fabian Ziegler (*1995). Only five members appeared in Lucerne.
Between the pieces, one of the ensemble members, Tilmann Bogler, an excellent presenter and communicator, explained the instruments and introduced the pieces.
Emmanuel Séjourné (*1961): Calienta
The performance started with truly cosmic sounds—a vibraphone, with ethereal, soft & mellow sound of two marimbas. However, that was merely the introduction. Suddenly, the musicians burst off into Latin dance rhythms. It was a very good performance, perfect in coordination, rhythm, enthralling. The audience was taken already! As the presenter explained, that piece (from 2009) originally was written for guitar and marimba. The “rhythmic enhancement” was by the artists. An excellent start!
The next number featured four of the musicians who entered the stage one by one, each bringing along a simple bar stool—and two drum sticks. While they assembled, the “instruments” were one drum stick in the left hand, beaten by the second stick. With the number of players, the rhythms got more complex—and then, the stools serves as percussion instruments, now played with both sticks. The group offered an excellent performance: an overview of a repertoire that top percussion groups all over the world now perform at shows. We experienced excellent synchronization, with built-in artistry, and not a single dropped drum stick: short, but very effective!
Nigel Westlake (*1958): “Omphalo Centric Lecture” for percussion quartet, op.1
The next composition dates from 1984 and apparently is one of the most frequently performed works in the percussion repertoire. It features two marimbas (two players each), cymbal and wood block, the four players now facing each other. It’s excellent music that combines Jazz and Minimal Music to form a fascinating mix, covering a wide spectrum from subtle, soft sounds, intricate, thrilling rhythms, up to enthralling sections, full of drive—very well done!
The ensemble re-united for the final piece: at the core, up to five musicians “treated” a single marimba, with one of the players temporarily “wandering off” to reinforce the rhythm on a Cajón: a short, but brilliant performance!
An excellent presentation by five (out of six) promising, young talents—congrats!