Here at the Tonhalle Maag in Zurich, it’s hardly customary to have the conductor take a microphone on stage just before a concert, as composer/conductor Tan Dun recently did to introduce the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra and its programme. But the introduction to a selection that included select Chinese works was both justified and helpful. Justified, because the genre of Chinese opera which figured in the first half of the evening’s offer is radically different from what is familiar on the Western stage, and helpful because the vocal tones, exaggerated dramatisation and bright colours of the Chinese genre set the soloists apart in almost every way.

Ralph van Raat © Simon van Boxtel
Ralph van Raat
© Simon van Boxtel

Igor Stravinsky’s Feu d’artifice was first on the programme. This short if radiant piece was one the young Stravinsky composed to celebrate the wedding between his fellow student Maximilian Steinberg and Nadezda, the daughter of their teacher, composer Rimsky-Korsakov. Often cited as a four-minute “firework”, the showy piece drives the various instrument groups up and down the scale almost relentlessly, sometimes at the expense of precision, and here seemed to run the risk of approaching sheer cacophony in several instances. That said, it made for a convincing wake up call.

Dun’s own Farewell, my concubine is a symphonic poem for piano and the Chinese “qingyi”, the most important of all female roles in Peking Opera performances. This part of the programme was met with a far keener reception, in no small part because the conductor had composed the work to commemorate what would have been the 120th birthday of Chinese artist Mei Lanfang. It was Lanfang’s legendary sword dance, in fact, that inspired a performance that was a startling exception to the usual Maag stage. The distinction went to Wenqing Lian, the renowned Peking Opera soloist who, once the piece had begun, meandered to centre stage dressed in a stop-sign-yellow garment and elaborately embroidered robe that made her look like a bird against the host of formal black-and-white musicians. She also wore a crown with a host of dangling beads that shimmied as she moved, echoing a whole catalogue of stylised and slowly-evolving gestures. Her double sword-dance, duly accompanied by her emphatic vocals, was a polished performance. The voice, which puts terrific demands on the vocal chords, was consistently nasal by Western standards, but met the highest demands of the genre – sustained, deliberate, other-worldly.

Accompanying piano by fine Dutch pianist Ralph von Raat was consistently strong and precise – his score, however, resembling something of the interface between a Chinese street market and a Rachmaninov concerto. In the interval, he spoke informally about the piece, citing its wealth of tones and intervals, its integration of the contemporary and classical styles, its motifs that recall both the work of Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern but as readily echo John Cage and Olivier Messiaen. In short, those citations make what he called a veritable “journey of discovery”.

After the interval, soloist Wenwen Liu played the suona in Ren Tongxiang’s 100 Birds Flying Towards Phoenix. The suona is a Chinese instrument whose strident sound is best likened to that of the oboe. By alternating two suonas, each with its own register, the soloist convincingly played the “100 birds” in a highly theatrical performance. One of her two instruments had a mouthpiece that was bright red, giving her lips a kind of bloat and boost and were integral to her portrayal of the many different species. And one could hear them all: the failing confidence of the one; the fear in another when confronted with a brash, larger flock; the lonely male looking for a mate. Liu even used her free hand to hail feathered friends, or to ask others already “in flight” to let her catch up with them. In a singularly brilliant performance, her breath control, too, was a sheer phenomenon.

In keeping with the bird theme, Stravinsky’s Firebird suite came last in the programme, a challenging orchestral work by any standard. While a highly athletic Dun gave pointed direction, the orchestra seemed to suffer a lack of pathos that occasionally translated into a bombastic but somewhat two-dimensional blur. While the more visceral landscape of the work seemed to go unchartered, the solo oboe, cello and bassoon excelled in their melodic parts nevertheless. In sum, that proves convincingly that “a journey of discovery” is a worthy undertaking for both sides of an East-West exchange.