Beyond the Wall: New Music from China – Music for pipa … The Afterlife of Li Jiantong

Works for pipa
Liu Sola
The Afterlife of Li Jiantong [World premiere]

Wu Man (pipa)

Theatre of Voices
Paul Hillier

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 12 May, 2009
Venue: Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke's, Old Street, London

If ever there was a concert of two mutually unsympathetic halves, this “Beyond the Wall” event, showcasing contemporary music from China, was surely it.

Paul Hillier It opened with a 45-minute recital of music written between 1929 and 2005 for the pipa, the Chinese lute, played by Wu Man. Like the lute, the sound is not loud, but it has a surprisingly wide range of timbre, conjuring up to Western ears anything from the clavichord to the electric guitar. In Wu Man, well known for her work with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project and the Kronos Quartet, the instrument and its repertoire could not have a more persuasive advocate.

Her technique is astonishing, and her engaging performance style gave an immediacy and weight to the seven pieces she played. The most dazzling was Dance of the Yi People (1960), a virtuoso tour de force based on classical folk tunes from south-west China. Folk music inspired the other pieces in her programme – evocative music of concentrated, slightly melancholic beauty. I could happily have listened to Wu Man for hours.

Then there was Liu Sola. In his programme note, Robert Worby wrote that the only constant in contemporary Chinese music is its aesthetic of rapid adaptive and adoptive change. In the case of “The Afterlife of Li Jiantong”, Liu Sola’s hour-long chamber opera, we might reasonably hope that Chinese music rapidly moves on to greater things. That certainly seemed to be the opinion of many of the audience (which included a large number of young Chinese) who headed for the exit during the course of the performance, such was the effect of this paralysingly dull work.

Li Jiantong, a political writer who fell foul of the Cultural Revolution, was Liu Sola’s mother, and from Liu’s programme note, we can infer that her decision to avoid politics and become a pop-rock musician and ‘lost generation’ writer was a source of tension between mother and daughter. In the opera, Li’s spirit appears to Liu during the three acts, in which the mother tells her daughter about life after death and exhorts her to listen to the stars. If it was a homage, it also felt like an extended act of self-justifying auto-therapy.

To put it mildly, Liu’s extreme economy of compositional means – a repetitive, narrow band of vocalising with a lightly drawn harp, recorder and percussion accompaniment – could never justify its length. Between the acts there was some squirm-inducing, spoken dialogue (also penned by the multitasking Liu), which, unlike the sung words, was at least intelligible.

Commissioned by the Barbican Centre, Theatre of Voices and the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, the opera fielded a strong Danish element in soprano Else Torp, who sang the role of Daughter to mezzo Iris Oja’s Mother, and bass-baritone Jakob Bloch Jespersen, who sang the role of Father and shared the woefully unfunny dialogue with baseball-cap-wearing percussionist Gert Mortensen. Michala Petri and Andrew Lawrence-King, no less, ploughed gamely through this note-spinning. Paul Hillier, billed as artistic director, conducted. For a work based in the spirit world, this was a woefully dispiriting experience.

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