Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra

Date 18 August 2007 at 8pm Venue Chan Centre for the Performing Arts

Reviewer John Jane

The ancient and the avant-garde were brought together by principal conductor, Yan Huichang and the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, currently the only full-size Chinese Orchestra in southern China.

The performance contrasted Tan Dun's Shadow of Sky, a Suite for Chinese String Instruments with Zhao Yongshan and Liu Wenjin’s monumental arrangement of Ambush from All Sides, a grand soundscape that evokes 2,000-year-old battle. The programme also included Yellow River Capriccio, and an exhilarating arrangement of The Grand Victory, wind and percussion folk music from Shanxi Province.

The 85 musicians appeared on stage and quietly took their seats, to welcoming applause, all bedecked in identical midnight blue and grey full-length tunics. Maestro Yan Huichang appeared shortly after and opened with an explosive rendition of The Grand Victory. Initial sounds of festivity gradually gave way to a rhythmic and energetic texture, with the instruments imitating human voices.

The next piece, An-Ching was commissioned and premiered by the orchestra for their concert that celebrated the establishment of Hong Kong as a “special administrative region.” It featured a section sublimely played on the (only two in the orchestra) xiaoruans by (I assume father and daughter) Di Yang and Ge Yang.

For the lengthy Shadow of Sky, only the string musicians remained on stage. The piece blends Tan Dun’s avant-garde compositional techniques with a traditional Chinese folk style. Tan Dun is probably best known for his film score for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

For me, and I suspect the majority of the many Chinese-Canadians present in the audience; the chef-d'oeuvre was the vigorous music drama performance by charismatic Manchurian, Feng Shao-Xian. His narrative singing and sanxian playing in the Song of the Black Earth was mind-blowing and I’m sure was even heard over in China-town.

In Feng's hands, the sanxian (a 3-string long-necked lute with a snake skin membrane) was capable of an enormous range of sounds and evoked the hardships of the people sent to farm the black land during the “Cultural Revolution.” The orchestra employed farming implements (baskets and shovels) to create rhythmic effects.

After a brief intermission, the full orchestra returned to perform the rousing, curiously titled, Ambush from All Sides, which depicts the historic battle between Xiang Lu and Liu Bang around 200 BC.

This was followed by a selection of three Cantonese songs with such colourful titles as “Stepping High,” “Beautiful Clouds Chasing the Moon,” and the light-hearted, “In Celebration of the Good Times.” Finally, we heard Cheng Dazhao’s stirring and evocative, Yellow River Capriccio which featured memourable accompaniment of the entire audience playing the hand-held rattle drums handed out by staff members at the beginning of the performance.

When Bing Thom Architects designed the Chan Shun Concert Hall ten years ago, they would not have used a symphonic ensemble of traditional Chinese instruments as their acoustic model. But the Saturday evening performance of the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra is exactly the kind of concert that it was built for.

This concert was the penultimate of fifty-six musical events in what was likely one of the most successful Festival Vancouver seasons in its seven-year history.

© 2007 John Jane