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Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra, Xinghai Concert Hall, Guangzhou – review

Yo-Yo Ma
Financial Times

By Ken Smith

Zhao Lin’s world premiere, performed by Yo-Yo Ma and Wu Tong, was a listenable and restrained

Although China has been unified for a couple of thousand years, regional characteristics remain. Compared with the ancient kingdom of Qin (centred in Xi’an), whose totalitarian rule reeked of control, the kingdom of Shu (now Sichuan) was relatively wild, even a bit dangerous. The planners of Yo-Yo Ma’s current China tour may not have envisioned so stark a contrast in the programme, but the music provided something of a broad national portrait.

A more clear-cut motive was the world premiere of the double concerto Duo for Ma and Wu Tong, the former Beijing rock star and traditional sheng player whose world-savvy musicianship and solid grounding in Chinese culture have made him an anchor in Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble since its founding in 2000. The piece was co-commissioned by the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra and the China Philharmonic Orchestra (and led by Long Yu, their common music director). It was also a reunion with composer Zhao Lin, who with his father, Zhao Jiping, composed much of the music for Ma’s 2005 Silk Road recording.

Like his father, whose film scores for Raise the Red Lantern and Farewell My Concubine set the standard symphonic balance between east and west, the Xi’an-born Zhao Lin is pretty much a Qin person. Inspired by the journals of Xuanzang, the Tang Dynasty monk whose legendary pilgrimage to India in the seventh century inspired the epic novel Journey to the West, Zhao Lin’s concerto tracks his subject’s physical and spiritual relationship to his surroundings, with the cellist as melodic human protagonist and the sheng’s ornamental presence representing the divine.

Much like his father, Zhao Lin has a film composer’s ability to establish a mood and deftly sustain a single emotional state. His music is also thoroughly listenable and highly melodic, without necessarily taking the listener anywhere. Zhao’s journey is mostly an internal affair, more a matter of contemplation and survival than reaching a particular destination. (The piece’s Chinese title “Du” can mean “transition” or “a state of mind”.)

By contrast, Guo Wenjing’s opening Folk Song Suite for string orchestra, and particularly his bamboo flute concerto Chou Kong Shan, a colourful symphonic portrait of Tang dynasty poet Li Bai’s descriptions of Sichuan (Guo’s native province), conveyed all the wildness that Zhao’s Duo lacked. Soloist Tang Junqiao was not just a dynamic virtuoso but a lively musical saleswoman. Compared with her extrovert charisma, Ma and Wu’s formidable restraint whispered in the ear and let Zhao’s piece sell itself.