The Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra is big and takes its music seriously. Listen before the concert starts, and they are busy warming up and practising their notes, sometimes whole sections together.
And their best music is a delight to hear. For me, that was in the pieces by their native, contemporary composers, and particularly the Duo, for sheng, cello and orchestra, by Lin Zhao. It featured two soloists who are international stars in their own right – Jian Wang, the cellist (who has appeared with the Hallé as soloist, too), and Lei Jia, the sheng player.
The sheng is a wonderful instrument. It’s like a miniature, mouth-blown organ, but much more than a harmonica, as the reeds are amplified by bamboo resonator pipes, making its tone both richer and more penetrating. In the hands of an expert (as it was) it’s a highly expressive, beautiful solo instrument and can play simple chords, too – which it did in this piece to make occasional accompaniment to the cello. It has its percussive side, also – like a baroque krummhorn (or organ krummhorn stop) it speaks with such attack that its staccato sounds like a harpsichord.
The two make perfect partners, above all, in yearning, keening song, and much of the language of Lin Zhao’s piece is what we would probably call ‘English pastoral’ – modally-influenced harmony and some contrapuntal lines written in a mellow, choral style, often with long ‘pedals’ underlying the melodies. It also has big climaxes which contrast with its meditative moods. The three titled sections are not particularly differentiated, though, and overall it’s a bit too long, with endless repeated patterns in the final section. Jian Wang’s playing was gloriously varied and richly expressive.
(For an encore, the two played another piece by the same composer, a lovely arrangement of a traditional, pentatonic song with strings accompaniment).
The other Chinese-composed music was Xiaogang Ye’s Cantonese Suite, in four movements with pictorial titles.
Written in 2005, this is more akin to lush Hollywood film score music, presenting more modal melodies with ‘added note’ harmonies, fluently orchestrated and showing off the wind soloists of the orchestra to good effect. The tunes are haunting and the simplicity of the idiom beguiling, but the moods seem to change little despite the words of the titles.
The orchestra, under its ‘resident conductor’, Huan Jing, also brought two ‘standard’ (to our ears) works. They must know they’re inviting comparison with some of the world’s best when they bring this kind of music to a hall such as ours, and they didn’t come out of it very well.
It was probably a mistake even to try playing Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, as it’s so evocative of a certain English coastal atmosphere, demanding subtlety and skill to be realised as it should be – here it was mechanical, joyless and lacking in expression. There were some technical weaknesses, too – ragged violin ensemble, poor balance, too much big tone, and too little variation in pace or shaping of the phrases.
Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite (1919 version) made a weighty finale, though suffering from some of the same problems. The woodwind shone in solos, but there was a tendency to rush the faster passages and miss giving the music chance to breathe.