The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (ideally you should go out and buy the paper) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at Symphony Hall on Tuesday 16 May 2017.
It’s not every day you hear a sheng played by a virtuoso – at least, not in Birmingham. This Chinese instrument looks to western eyes like a miniature organ played through a bassoon mouthpiece. It sounds something like an accordion. And sensitively played by the Beijing-trained Lei Jia, it was the centrepiece of this first ever Birmingham concert by the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra under its music director of 14 years, Long Yu.
Strictly speaking, Jia shared the limelight with cellist Jian Wang; the work in question, Duo by Lin Zhao, is effectively a double concerto for sheng, cello and orchestra. Inspired by the ancient Chinese story of the monk Xuanzang’s journey to the West (remember the 1970s TV series Monkey?), it’s a lush, lyrical score with melancholy overtones, and Wang in particular played it with sincerity and considerable refinement. After the interval came another discovery (for me, anyway): Xiaogang Ye’s Cantonese Suite. The subtle, fantastic orchestral colourings of these four instantly-appealing settings of Cantonese folk melodies sounded uncannily French; the finale, Thunder in Drought, was a dead ringer for Ravel’s Laideronnette.
Both these works were GSO commissions – and how refreshing, amidst the endless parade of Tchaikovsky-touting Russian orchestras and Czech bands with their inevitable New Worlds, to encounter a touring orchestra with a bit of imagination and daring. The risk paid off handsomely; and the GSO’s brilliantly colourful playing carried over into a vivid account of Stravinsky’s 1919 Firebird suite and a disarmingly fresh and forthright performance of Britten’s Four Sea Interludes. Wonderful, too, to see the players smiling and swaying in two deliciously-played encores based on Chinese folk melodies. Who says all orchestras sound the same these days?