Xinxin Nanguan Ensemble

Tuesday, 12 August 2008 @ 8pm • Playhouse Theatre

Performers Wang Xin Xin, pipa and vocalist; Shih Heng Te, erxian; Wei po Nien, dongxiao; Fu Chien Ling, dance.

Reviewer John Jane

With all eyes turning to the Beijing Olympics, it’s easy to marvel at modern China’s amazing economic and technological advances over the last couple of decades. However, it was perhaps fitting that Festival Vancouver provided an opportunity to not only visit this exotic land but also to time travel to that nation's distant past when being demure was considered a virtue and every movement was purposely measured for civility.

George Laverock, Festival Vancouver director and husband of renowned pianist Jane Coop, introduced the Xin Xin Nanguan Ensemble to the audience at the Vancouver Playhouse on Tuesday. It was his efforts that brought the Taiwanese group to this year’s festival after seeing their leader, Wang Xin Xin perform with the National Symphony Orchestra on a visit to Taiwan.

The Playhouse, venue of many prodigious dramatic productions, turned out to be an ideal venue for this performance. Wang Xin Xin not only plays this difficult music, but sets the atmosphere in a traditional context.

A single Dongxiao (a simple end-blown flute) pules away in the blackness the haunting refrain of Plum Tree Prelude from seemingly nowhere. A slightly built woman treads silently and slowly, carrying a small lit candle that provides the only glimmer on an otherwise dark stage. She is dressed in attire that is symbolic of the Tang Dynasty (620–900).

The woman with the candle is, of course, Wang Xin Xin. She picks up the pipa (similar to the European lute, but with a slightly thinner tone) and accompanies herself on a pair of sung poems by Li Bai (701-762), Nostalgia in Moonlight and Drinking Alone under the Moon. The title of the latter is actually a metaphor for the isolation of a disenfranchised politician.

Wang’s vocal range is marginally higher than soprano, though not quite sopranino. Her exquisite interpretation of the melodically gentle and delicate Nanguan music evokes the most glorious period in China’s long history.

After the intermission, Wang is joined by the three members of her group for The Song of the Pipa. The music being composed by herself with lyrics taken from a poem by Bai Juyi (772-846) that tells the story of a banished scholar who falls for a pipa player. The performance features Wang’s pipa and the erxian (a two string instrument played with a bow).

The Xin Xin Nanguan Ensemble demonstrated the highest standards of composition, performance, and balance to make this performance of Chinese classical music a euphonic adventure and gave open-minded festival concert-goers an interesting cultural experience.

© 2008 John Jane