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Imperial Bells of China - Chimes in Concert - Sydney Opera House

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by Samsara (subscribe)
I am a director, playwright, and theatre critic with a Masters in Writing for Performance. You can check out my my portfolio and musings at
Ancient chimes in contemporary concert
The Imperial Bells of China is a cultural concert like nothing you will ever experience again soon. A concert combining the tones of centuries old chimes, Chinese folk music, and modern compositions, the Sydney Opera House came alive as the Hubei Opera Company shared the glory and transcendental nature of music with a full house.

Imperial Bells, Chimes, China, Sydney Opera House
Hubei Opera Company

The Bhianzhong Bells are the earliest twelve tone equal temperament instrument in the world and considered the 8th wonder of the world. Combining these 2,400 year old bells which were unearthed from the tomb of Duke Zeng in Hubei in 1978 with a series of other ancient instruments including the bianqing (stone chimes), se (a plucked zither), and jiang drums and adding the tonal qualities of cellos and double basses, an entire string section of erhus and also banjos, this concert has a curious intimacy which defies the sweeping compositions.

The concert meanders between chime music, folk compositions and contemporary work. The entire evening is conducted with mastery and clarity by Zhou Wen. In the encores, she even conducted the audience because we couldn't resist joining in any longer!

Imperial Bells, Chimes, China, Sydney Opera House
Hubei Opera Company

The concert centred around the full and rounded tones of the Bianzhong, usually complemented by the lilting playfulness of the bianqing. It takes three people to play the Bianzhong - two with hard mallets to ring the mid sized and smaller bells, and one to thrust with a padded staff at the large chimes which are almost half the height of a human! Most of the time they were played with the orchestra, but there was a solo in the second act - The Night Mooring - which allowed the instrument to shine with a sound much like an extraordinarily complex Carillon.

Modern compositions featuring the instrument have been included and it is impressive how well this ancient set of chimes fits in with contemporary sounds. With more gravitas than the gong the sonic qualities smooth and warm the dramatic moments. Chu Folk Song and Impression of Chu are stunning examples of what the Bianzhong brings to the orchestration.

Imperial Bells, Chimes, China, Sydney Opera House, Hubei Opera
Hubei Opera Company

Keeping the music connected to the people, we were delighted with Chinese folk music. Dance of The Yao, Chu Folk Song, and My Homeland swept us away and were remarkably reminiscent of music from the American mid-west in the frontier era. As well, we were graced with operatic solos by Ma Yaqin and Qin Desong, and were blessed by a stunning bamboo flute solo by the masterful Zhang Hongyang.

Chinese music has a different tonal signature to Western music and yet listening to this magnificent concert I couldn't help but think we are much more familiar with it than we perceive ourselves to be. The banjo has become as much a part of our folk culture as theirs (probably because of early Chinese emigration), and it was clear how comfortably the erhu works to fill the place of the violin in an orchestral lineup. The instruments are also played the same with everyone plucking, strumming, bowing, blowing, tapping and thumping like any other orchestra in the world. The sense of fun and liveliness displayed by Wen and the orchestra in the encore was joy as well, with everyone in the room getting involved in the liveliest William Tell Overture I have ever heard.
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Why? Hear the stunning tones of 2 400 year old bells in modern composition
When: 23 July 2017
Where: Sydney Opera House
Cost: From $39 ( booking fee)
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