Mention Beijing in London at the moment and some allusion to opening ceremonies, sports or medals will undoubtedly follow (with an optional grumble about the transport system tagged on the end). But at the Southbank Centre, a mention of Beijing would evoke an entirely more unique response, given the recent visit of the Beijing Symphony Orchestra in partnership with the Centre’s resident London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Tan Lihua © courtesy Albion Media
Tan Lihua
© courtesy Albion Media

Sunday night provided an opportunity for audiences to hear an intriguing juxtaposition of Chinese contemporary classical music alongside the mighty powerhouse of a Western work that is Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9. Indeed, the programme promised excitement from the first glance: Wenjing, Jianping and Beethoven is certainly an unusual combination of composers in a very unusual order, taking a reverse twist on traditionally chronological programmes and completely throwing expectations out the window with a multicultural melange of musical delights.

The programme opened with the ’Lotus’ (Linhua) Overture by Guo Wenjing, a work written specifically as a message of good will from China to London in honour of the 2012 Olympic Games. The lotus, said to be ‘born in mud, but not stained; washed by clear ripples, but not capricious’ as stated in Zhou Dunyi’s On the Love of the Lotus, is representative of purity, renewal and auspiciousness, which is why composer Wenjing chose to give the piece its name. The work begins with a single violin with a striking chord, before others echo and a picture begins to emerge as music comes to life. The piece then unfolds like a flower, melodic motifs with a menacing sweetness passing among the wind section, translucent harmonics from the strings shimmering over the rest of the orchestra as the sound broadens and richens before returning for the rebirth of the original motifs. Conductor Tan Lihua interpreted the piece with spirituality and poise, allowing the music to sweep unaffectedly but with precision and control, and the musicians played with a sense of unity that made it difficult to believe the orchestra was in fact comprised of two.

Continuing with the theme of Chinese contemporary composers, Tang Jianping’s concerto for percussion and orchestra Sacred Fire 2008 followed, with soloist Li Biao. The piece, ironically given its title, was written and premièred in 2006, and is a continuous work with three movements in which different percussion instruments are given the soloist’s spotlight. The first movement, in which Li Biao played drums, is representative of Prometheus, the Titan who stole fire from the Gods to give to the humans and was sacrificed by the Gods as a result. The rhythmic thundering of the solo above the orchestra seemed primal and raw, and evoked the myth with startling vivacity. The second movement came across as more poignant, the resonance of the vibraphone solo filling every gap between the players in the orchestra and pulsating amongst the fabric of the music. The final movement, with the marimba taking centre stage, rampaged furiously from the outset, Li Biao’s virtuosic flurries of notes both jaw-droppingly fast and impressively rhythmically tight. The cohesion between both of the orchestras, the soloist and the conductor was so natural as to almost go unnoticed, and Li Biao held the stage with a strong sense of presence and an assured technique throughout.

Finally, after such an exquisite exploration into the unfamiliar, our ears regained a renewed sense of familiarity with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The orchestras revelled in the ambiguity of the opening movement’s motifs, allowing the music to build from fragments into a full-blown wall of majesty and sound. The second movement tripped along sublimely, the dark wit of Beethoven bubbling agitatedly beneath the surface like a hidden agenda. The third movement was a little lacklustre to begin with, but as the theme became more decorated, the music began to rise and fall with more direction. The final movement was initially a little disappointing: while each of the soloists had a wonderful individual sense of tone, I couldn’t help but noticed that the balance was a little top-heavy, and as a result, some of the more delicious harmonies of the group passages were sadly lost. However, the grandeur of choir and orchestra swelling together swallowed the Royal Festival Hall entirely, and swimming among the rich tones of voices and instruments melded together still gave a triumphant finish to a wonderful concert.