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East Meets West Orchestral Concert

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by Roy Chambers (subscribe)
Lover of all things interesting and new
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Concert featuring classics of Chinese & Western Music
While East is East and West is West, it turns out that often the twain do meet, as they will in the East Meets West Orchestral Concert that is touring Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Adelaide. I was lucky enough to enjoy the first performance in Brisbane which was an interesting musical and cultural experience.

Image courtesy of AUSFENG
Image courtesy of AUSFENG

The performance features a local orchestra in each city along with conductors and soloists travelling with the performance, with the only exception being Brisbane's performance being conducted by Dane Lam while the other performances being conducted by Guy Noble. You will experience both Chinese and Western music, including various pieces that were specifically composed by Chinese artists in the western classical style, and other works arranged for a western classical orchestra. Thematically as well, the western works are chosen to fit into similar themes to some of the Chinese works.

The soloists & the Brisbane conductor for the East Meets West Orchestral Concert
The soloists & the Brisbane conductor for the East Meets West Orchestral Concert

The specific works & the performances

Jasmine Flowers is one of the most famous Chinese folk songs and dates back to the 18th century. It is often used these days to teach kids Chinese through song because of the simple lyrics and gentle pacing. It also features often in public Chinese performances.

The version we get on the night is actually Puccini's orchestral arrangement for the opera Turandot without any vocals. This is chosen to remind the audience that east has been meeting west for some time.

The next song is A Lovesick Knitted Brow in Vain
from the musical adaption of the classic Chinese novel, The Dream of the Red Chamber, also known as the Story of the Stone. This is the only song of the night to feature the Guzheng, played by Jammy Huang, with vocals by Victoria Lambourn.

Image courtesy of AUSFENG
Image courtesy of AUSFENG

Despite being a classic of Chinese literature, few people in the west have read the novel, but it is highly recommended, especially if you can get a good translation. It is part love story, part classic 1980s soap opera and is important for its vivid and realistic depictions of life, especially the life of upper-class women, in 18th century China. My favourite quote from the novel is "Some people talk of gifts of gold and jade, but I still remember of exchanges of stone and flower made." Or if you understand Chinese culture, the first gifts refer to the traditional wedding ceremony, but the thing that is more important than a wedding is falling in love and the simple gifts that characterise that, such as stones and flowers.

For those who are not familiar with the guzheng or Chinese harp, it is one of the most complex and beautiful Chinese instruments and is synonymous with North East Asian music, and even turns up in some South East Asian countries as well. The orchestral backing for the performance beautifully supports the grandeur of the music, vocals and story, though at times the orchestra overpowers and drowns out the guzheng, when it should really let the wonder of that instrument shine through.

One of the key thematic elements of the night are love stories, especially tragic ones, so the next song was Habanera from Carmen, performed again by Victoria Lambourn who performed the vocals for A Lovesick Knitted Brow in Vain. Carmen is, of course, the most beloved example of the combination of classical and folk musical traditions by French composer, Bizet. Incorporating Spanish folk music, it is the most popular musical score from any opera.

Image courtesy of AUSFENG
Image courtesy of AUSFENG

The inclusion in the concert is about reminding the audience that similar classical and folk music traditions exist in western music. Carmen, of course, being a great masterpiece, it reminds us of what could potentially be created through a combination of different musical styles.

This then takes us to one of the best-known examples of a classical orchestral work that incorporates Chinese musical styles. The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto is based on the folk tale, Butterfly Lovers, and is often called China's Romeo and Juliet, and in Chinese, it is just known by the names of the two lovers, Liang Zhu (梁祝). This will be contrasted later on in the performance with Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet.

However, the story of the Butterfly Lovers involves less family street violence, parties, political machinations and other things that work together to cross the lovers in Shakespeare's work, and is more like a soap opera. Zhu Yingtai wants to study and dresses as a boy to go to school where she meets and falls in love with a fellow student, Liang Shanbo, who, despite studying together and being close friends for 3 years doesn't realise that Zhu Yingtai is a girl in disguise.

When she returns she asked him to come and visit. When he does, he finds that he is really a she, they fall in love, but Zhu Yingtai is promised in marriage to another man. When he learns this, Liang Shanbo kills himself. When Zhu Yingtai and her wedding party is heading to get married they pass his grave but a terrible storm stops them from progressing, and she runs off to Liang Shanbo's grave, which opens up and she jumps in and dies. But out of the grave comes two butterflies who are the spirits of the two lovers united in after death.

This is a common theme in love stories in China, where duty to filial duty, tradition, the emperor and so on comes before the loves and lives of ordinary people. But it is okay, their love will live on beyond the grave.

The performance features Anna Da Silva Chen as the solo violinist, whose violin also musically plays the role of Zhu Yingtai, while a cellist, who will differ between orchestras, plays the role of Liang Shanbo. Carmen is of course a hard act to follow and The Butterfly Lovers is a good, bordering on great work. Composed in the 1950s, you can hear the parallels to the great orchestral soundtracks of Hollywood movies of the era reflected in the style, but also clearly identify the Chinese musical features and elements. In particular, there is a strong use of Chinese musical tradition to evoke images musically, so it is not just about emotions like love and despair, but also clearly conjures up ideas of storms, transformations and of course, it ends with the music transformed into butterflies dancing out from the grave.

The comparison of the Butterfly Lovers to Romeo and Juliet means that the first work after the break is Prokofiev's Montagues and Capulets from his Romeo and Juliet ballet.

The next work is another tragic love story, Verdi's Ernani with Sharon Zhai as the Soprano. Here we have a story similar to Chinese love stories, where the lovers are not even given the chance to sip from the cup of love in the end because of their duty to the emperor.

We return to China with Pamir - My Beautiful Hometown , again with Sharon Zhai as the Soprano. For those who are not familiar with Pamir, it is a mountainous region running from Afghanistan, through Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and ending in western China in Xinjiang Province. The song, composed by Zheng Qiufeng is a great reminder of China's multicultural nature, where the diversity of their languages and cultural traditions are celebrated in a country that also tries to be uniform.

Image courtesy of AUSFENG
Image courtesy of AUSFENG

The night ends with the The Yellow River Piano Concerto. The creation of this piece is a bit like the plot of Iron Man, in that the best parts were composed by a genius, Xian Xinghai, in a cave in a war zone (the 1937 invasion of China by Japan). But it has been heavy-handedly been added on by authority figures later. Li Huanzhi, Qu Wei, and Yan Liangkun all added to this work, until, during the cultural revolution it caught the attention of Jiang Qing, former film actress, wife of Chairman Mao and chair of the Central Cultural Revolution Group, who wanted to create new artistic forms that combine classic western music and dance with Chinese folk traditions. She then required that the original Yellow River Cantata be rearranged into the four movement Yellow River Piano Concerto.

These efforts to combine very different dance and music traditions were not well received by people at the time, and have generally been forgotten, with the preexisting work about the Yellow River being one of the few that survived. Though Jiang Qing did not, having been arrested after Chairman Mao's death along with the Gang of Four, and like them, lived the rest of her life under arrest.

Having said all that, this is still an important musical work that embodies very important social and political themes. You see even today modern leaders of China look back to the duties of emperors, right back to the Qin Dynasty which founded the original Middle Kingdom in 221 BC. Even then, according to legend, these were the ancestral obligations for that emperor so extend back into mythology.

The emperor of China has a number of obligations, including, rebuilding the great wall, or in other words, ensuring the defence of the country, unifying the language, after all in the time of the Qin there were 7 different characters for sword, and today there are still a large number of languages and dialects across China, reunify the country, and last but not least tame the Yellow River which famously was subject to floods. The latter of which is often interpreted as the environmental responsibilities of the leadership of China.

The Yellow River in the west of China in Gansu Province
The Yellow River in the west of China in Gansu Province

While the work is about the Yellow RIver, its origins and developments were done at times of great turmoil in China, and so evoke more than just that, but the duty of the leaders and the people of China to Defend the Yellow River, or really, as the Yellow River defines the country, but to unite and defend the country as well.

Personally I find the work heavy-handed, especially the piano. Though Tony Lee performs on the piano brilliantly, with the necessarily light touch that helps to come extent. You can still hear the genius behind the original work in this version though.

Image courtesy of AUSFENG
Image courtesy of AUSFENG


Everything in China is multilayered, and enjoying the East Meets West concert is about learning to appreciate the different layers, meanings and musical styles in the selections, arrangements and performances of the night. The evening is a chance to gain more appreciation of Chinese music and culture, hopefully inspiring people to read, see, hear and learn more.

I was though a little disappointed that the concert leaned a little too heavily on western music and performances, and not only was the guzheng used for only one song, it was never allowed to stand alone. I would have hoped for at least one purely Chinese work and performance to go with the similarly pure western works. But overall an interesting musical and cultural experience.
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*Roy Chambers was invited as a guest
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Why? Concert featuring classics of Chinese & Western Music
Where: Brisbane, Sydney, Adelaide, Canberra
Cost: Tickets from $59
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