As part of its 60th birthday celebrations, China’s Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra performed a three-date tour of the UK, ending at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall on Wednesday. Their programme combined two contemporary Chinese works with a pair of twentieth century masterpieces. However, it quickly became apparent that the orchestra had but one approach to performance: coating everything with lashings of sugar.

The Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra with Long Yu © Guangzhou Symphony
The Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra with Long Yu
© Guangzhou Symphony

If the orchestra can be said to have “shone”, it was in the contemporary pieces. While it has for the most part faded in the West, programme music remains an important element in the East. Xiaogang Ye restricted himself to succinct titles – “Raindrops Tapping on Banana Leaves”, for example – while Lin Zhao provided detailed descriptions: “Smoke in the desert, living without shelter, such hardship”, and so on. There was, unfortunately, little to differentiate them. Both were entirely filmic in character – Zhao marginally more than Ye – sounding essentially identical to any number of sweeping movie scores evoking the Far East. This immediately provoked a convoluted thought-process: does this sound Eastern, or Eastern wanting to sound Western? Or Eastern wanting to sound Western wanting to sound Eastern? The answer lies somewhere between the last two of those options, and while the music in these works didn’t exactly sound ersatz, its notion of authenticity – in terms of both cultural and compositional identity – was highly questionable.

In some respects Ye had given himself the tougher assignment, agreeing to a commission using Cantonese tunes that he wasn’t allowed to alter. Yet the way in which he dressed up these tunes was bland in the extreme. Each movement was essentially a “mood” piece, though in terms of ideas (no doubt hampered by that “no alterations” rule) they were either stuck in a rut – the chirpy “Thunder in Drought” like the circling underscore for a Chinese Ealing comedy, for example – or simply vague, as in the directionless warmth of “Moonlight Reflection” that would have served for any generic movie love scene.

The “East meets West meets East” quandary was more apparent and problematic with Lin Zhao, whom the programme informed us is apparently dubbed “the John Williams of China”. He is indeed; much of his sheng and cello concerto, Duo, was a carbon copy of Williams at his most Eastern-inspired: a cross between Seven Years in Tibet and Memoirs of a Geisha. It was, for a time, supremely pretty, the soloists’ timbres making for highly attractive duet writing, furnished with lush orchestrations. It wasn’t only filmic from this superficial perspective, though; Zhao’s malleable approach to musical narrative and structure echoed the way movie scores need to shift swiftly and unexpectedly. However, the effect was to turn Duo into a stream of consciousness, a conveyor belt of pretty ideas instantly forgotten once they had passed by (no memorable themes à la Williams). So far, so harmless, though Zhao’s attempts at earnestness in the closing movement went too far – the incessant, high cello going from singing to whining, with pseudo-solemn accompaniment from antique cymbals and singing bowls. This was musical small talk: polite pleasantries and no substance, all Western sugar and no Eastern spice.

One might attribute an experience like this to so-called “cultural differences” in attitudes to contemporary music, but that argument was undermined by the orchestra’s approach to the Britten and Stravinsky, both of which were performed in exactly the same manner. Thus, Britten’s quartet of fundamentally troubled seascapes were airbrushed into pristine picture postcards as if painted by Thomas Kinkade. Where Britten calls for purity and sweetness, it was there in abundance; but where he tilts the music, hinting at menace, things went awry. The music now had a painting-by-numbers feel; the right colours in the right places but crudely placed, failing to jell, and there were times (most noticeably in “Moonlight”) when it became so abstract as to seem unrecognisable. There was some heft to the closing “Storm”, though conductor Long Yu took it so fast that all threat was evaporated, turning instead in a strange kind of dance.

The Firebird fared little better. Again, when the orchestra was in its comfort zone, as in the “Princesses’ Round”, the results were enormously beautiful, and to give them due credit, without any luxuriating or over-indulgence. But it was disappointing that, throughout the concert, Long Yu only seemed to allow the orchestra to use two gears. As in Britten’s “Storm”, Stravinsky’s “Infernal Dance” became a runaway romp, seemingly rushed through to get to the safe stability of the “Finale”.

To hear Britten and Stravinsky receive this kind of skin-deep treatment was a genuine shock, though the orchestra was at least being consistent. Yet an evening of such saccharine, homogenised music-making was a long way from the stimulating cross-cultural engagement one had anticipated.