I love symphonic concerts (obviously). As a skiing nut and reasonably keen hiker, I also love mountains and the thrill of going up a mountain in a cable car. The thing is, I don’t normally think of putting the two together. So I really wasn’t expecting to read the sentence “we’re going to stage a large scale symphonic concert at the top of a mountain on the deadliest hiking trail in the world and we’d like you to write about it”.

Xi'an Symphony Orchestra © Zhen Li (李震)
Xi'an Symphony Orchestra
© Zhen Li (李震)

That, however, is exactly what happened. There’s room for debate as to whether the five-peaked Mount Hua (Huashan or 華山 in Chinese) is actually the number one scariest hike in the world – particularly given that safety ropes have been installed in the years since it earned its reputation – but it definitely comes high on the list, and what's also beyond question is that the surrounding landscape is staggeringly scenic. The Xi’an Symphony Orchestra decided to display its beauties to the world by playing a concert of varied music from the top of Lianhua Feng, the “Lotus Flower Summit” West peak of Huashan, and putting it all on video, interleaving shots of the orchestra with spectacular aerial photography of the surrounding mountains. (For those unfamiliar with China: Xi’an, in Shaanxi Province, is best known outside China as the home of the Terracotta Warriors, site of the XSO's previous on-location concert in 2019).


The setting for the 4th July concert, entitled “Summit Clouds Rhapsody”, could not have been more scenic. The Xi’an Symphony Chorus – the men immaculate in white tie, the ladies in deep red – are arrayed two by two along a narrow ridge, separated by a safety rope from a vertiginous drop. And when I say vertiginous, I mean vertiginous: if you’ve been to the Andes, you’ll know the kind of several hundred metre vertical drop we’re talking about here; if your experience of mountains is the Alps or Rockies, you’ve never seen anything like it. The orchestra, seated in rows five abreast, is lined up opposite them, with somewhat more of a patch of vegetation between them and the abyss. In the centre is the benign figure and the flowing locks of conductor Tang Muhai; just next to him, for the first work, is the Huashan Lao-opera ensemble, a group of ten musicians in colourful costumes playing instruments that will be unfamiliar to Western ears. They treat us to a fragment of Huayin Laoqiang, one of the oldest and rarest of China’s many operatic forms – arranged so that the orchestra echo the sound of the traditional ensemble: the title Mountains succumb to marching orders seems fanciful when you look at the solidity of the landscape, which you can’t imagine succumbing to anything.

Chen Leiji playing the guqin in his own concerto © Zhen Li (李震)
Chen Leiji playing the guqin in his own concerto
© Zhen Li (李震)

Another Chinese instrument follows with Chen Leiji’s concerto for guqin and orchestra, with the composer as soloist. The guqin is a plucked, fretless string instrument which is surprisingly versatile, able to be elegiac or to create a threatening rumbling evocation of stormy weather. Chen’s orchestration radiates calm.

The rest of the programme is unashamedly theatrical, with music drawn from opera and film (and, in the case of Beethoven’s overture to Egmont, the stage). Throughout the concert, live shots of the orchestra alternate with vivid drone shots of the landscape around: we see small six person cable cars (the ones skiers call “bubbles”) coming in and out of their station via a hole in the rock just below the orchestra; we see the mountainscapes around, we see Huashan’s other peaks. Most of all, we see that we are actually above the clouds, which makes the perfect setting for Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. The dead heroes, waiting to be plucked from the earth by Wotan’s warrior maidens, have never seemed such a long way down – it makes for an exceptional combination of music and landscape.

Xi'an Symphony Orchestra and Chorus © Zhen Li (李震)
Xi'an Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
© Zhen Li (李震)

The connection to the mountains is less obvious with the other opera selections, although there’s no questioning their status in the canon of greats: after the Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana (moment of cathartic reflection precedes brutal killing), the Xi’an Symphony Chorus gets put through its paces with the Auto-da-fé scene from Don Carlo (joyous celebration prior to burning of heretics) and the Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor (storytelling divertissement). On the video, the powerful opening of the last Polovtsian Dance is matched to an eye-popping shot looking directly down the cliff-face into a seemingly endless drop. Anyone without a head for heights might like to close their eyes at this point.

Tang Sushan plays solo violin in Tan Dun's <i>For the World</i> © Zhen Li (李震)
Tang Sushan plays solo violin in Tan Dun's For the World
© Zhen Li (李震)

We close with three works by Chinese composers. With due respect to Mascagni, Tan Dun’s From the World (for solo violin and orchestra, taken from his score for the martial arts film Hero), is the most lyrically beautiful highlight of the whole event. The third movement of the Symphony no.1 by Zhao Jiping, a native of Shaanxi, is a grand choral affair which betrays his background as a film composer (several of his scores are for films well known to Western art cinema fans such as Farewell, My Concubine and Raise the Red Lantern). The last piece is film music that’s definitely mountain-related: Liu Chi’s My Motherland was written for the 1956 movie Battle on Shangganling Mountain, set in the Korean War. The uncredited choirmaster and all the singers look rapt at the lilt of the characteristically Chinese pentatonic theme.

The occasion is strange, of course: although the broadcast engineers have done a splendid job overall, they can’t avoid the occasional intrusion of mountain weather, and you can’t help but feel the fact that there’s no audience to applaud. But despite this, there’s no questioning the effect of the grandeur of the landscape on all the performers. The “curtain call” – the musicians fading into the distance as they wave together at the retreating drone camera – is an emotional moment.

Xi'an Symphony Orchestra and Chorus © Zhen Li (李震)
Xi'an Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
© Zhen Li (李震)

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This article was sponsored by the Xi'an Symphony Orchestra