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Tales from the Forbidden City - review

Tales from the Forbidden City - review

Tales from the Forbidden City
New Zealand String Quartet & Forbidden City Chamber Orchestra

Raye Friedman Arts Centre
March 15, 2014

You remember the story of the elephant and the six blind men. This is the story of the camel and the seven audience members. In the starring role of the camel, we have the combined forces of the Forbidden City Chamber Orchestra and the New Zealand String Quartet. Give them a big hand, ladies and gentlemen!

No, seriously, I mean it. I’ve had mixed responses to the NZSQ over the years – this is not a damning-with-faint-praise euphemism; sometimes I’ve found them impressive performers, other times they’ve left me disappointed – but at the Raye Friedman Arts Centre they brought strong technique and good musicianship to bear on a challenging programme.

I’m less qualified to judge the Forbidden City players, because they play traditional Chinese instruments, but I enjoyed their playing very much; I spent some of the intermission wandering up and down in front of the stage, figuring out which was the sanxian, which was the sheng, and whether the thing I initially took for a banhu was actually a ruan.

The chance to hear two such extravagantly different performance traditions combine was the great attraction of this concert. Most of the audience would have been better versed in one than the other; certainly for me, the experience was of blended familiarity and unfamiliarity. The four Western instruments spread their warm sound broadly around each note they played, while the more numerous Chinese ones, mostly plucked or struck, each produced a sharper, more finely focused sound with fewer overtones. (Though the sheng, a multiple-pipes wind instrument, can play several notes at once).

Six of the seven works played in this concert were new pieces from New Zealand and Chinese composers, written especially for this combination of forces. The seventh, pianist/composer Gao Ping’s piano concerto The Four Not-Alike, is a slightly older work for the Forbidden City ensemble plus piano; curiously, due to the over-shadowing power of the solo instrument, it was the most conventionally Western-sounding work of the evening. It’s pleasant enough, but it relies heavily on unusual performance effects (the pianist sings, claps his hands, reaches into the piano to strum its strings) rather than on interesting musical ideas; I wouldn’t listen to it twice.

That puts it about halfway up this concert’s score card. At the bottom were Dylan Lardelli’s Secrets, listening to the qin, and Michael Norris’s Inner Phases: wildly different works united by a dreary, repetitive minimalism. I would have prefered not to have heard these even once. Tabea Squire and Gao Weijie proved much more engaging and enjoyable composers – Gao Weijie had the advantage of writing for world-class counter-tenor soloist Xiao Ma, whose voice blended beautifully with the NZSQ’s lush harmonies, but of these two it was Squire’s two contrasting duets for East-West instrumental pairs that had me sitting up and taking notice.

The great delights of the evening were the sharply contrasting compositions of Zou Hang and Jack Body, each of which went beyond exploring unusual tone colour combinations and seized the chance to write rich, energetic music that used all these instruments to the full. These pieces are jagged semi-cut gems, rough and smooth in all the right places. A shorter, tighter programme built around the two of them would have been a superb night out.

This was not a short or tight programme. It lasted well over two hours, and on the way out I heard someone mutter, “That was a marathon.” Or, as I prefer to think of it, a camel: a programme designed by a committee practicing the politics of over-inclusion. Seven audience members each allowed to describe only one piece would sculpt out an ungainly, lumbering mix of parts, like the blind men touching the elephant’s ear, tail, trunk, legs, and describing a leaf, a tree, a snake, a rope.

No cohesion, no elegance, and the best works adjacent to each other in the first half, leaving a long, long tail: very like a snake, indeed. The apparent desire to showcase as many composers as possible did not negate this concert’s pleasures, but it was a textbook case of optimists over-estimating an audience’s tolerance for sprawl.

Music