Tao Te Ching
Oxbow [world premiere]
Wai-Yin Li (soprano)
Yu LeFu (dai-hu)
Jonathan Small (oboe)
Reviewed by: Glyn Môn Hughes
Reviewed: 24 January, 2009
Venue: The Cornerstone, Hope at Everton, Liverpool
Ensemble 10/10 – the contemporary music group of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic – has built up a formidable reputation and following over the last decade. So entrenched is it now in the musical fabric of the city that the group felt able to put on a concert of complex and demanding works to celebrate the Chinese New Year and practically fill the hall with people from the extensive local Chinese community.
Liverpool, in the 1950s, and later, was quite possibly the UK’s main centre for contemporary music with, amongst others, Sir John Pritchard and Sir Charles Groves pioneering the “Musica Viva” concerts which regularly filled Philharmonic Hall. That fell by the wayside, but Ensemble 10/10’s efforts has put Liverpool back on the map of contemporary music and was here able to pay homage to what is said to be Europe’s oldest Chinese community.
The concert began with Raymond Yiu’s Night Shanghai, a work scored for six players and a quite fascinating fusion of tango with traditional Chinese rhythms and melodies. Yiu, born in Hong Kong but now resident in England, manages the transition brilliantly, from the fragmentary start, through a rather more lyrical, dance-like section into the recognisable tango which was reminiscent of one of those art-house films set in a smoky bar in the 1940s. And then, just as the atmosphere built up, the voyeur moved on, back into that fragmented musical atmosphere. Most unusual was the use of an accordion in the ensemble, an instrument that more than added to that feeling of languid reminiscence.
SiSi Feng’s “Tao Te Ching” is a four-movement piece for soprano and ensemble. Sisi is from Shanghai – coincidentally a twin city of Liverpool – and studied in China as well as in Manchester and London. This is a clever piece which combines the European bel canto tradition with that of Peking Opera – a tall order, but one expertly achieved by soprano Wai-Yin Li. Hers is a huge voice but one which is highly adaptable and, when required, nimble. The opening movement was, in some ways, quite violent with many spiked edges. The scoring is dense and the use of quarter-tones constantly testing the soloist who was, for much of the time, singing at the bounds of her range. A more lyrical and slower second movement moved into a third that was virtually Sprechstimme – again expertly performed by Li. The finale drew on Western influence, a lyrical song that came to a sudden, somewhat violent, conclusion.
Ian Stephens’s Oxbow is written for dai-hu and ensemble. The dai-hu is a new instrument, developed by Liverpool resident K. H. Li, who has lived in the city for nearly 30 years after working closely with Guandong Shinese Symphonic Orchestra.It’s a privilege to go to a premiere but to go to a concert where a new instrument is presented is a wholly new experience. This was a delightfully lyrical piece in which the influence of Ralph Vaughan Williams or Herbert Howells is never far away: indeed, Stephens used a Devon folksong within the composition. Yet it was the performance of Yu LeFu on the dai-hu that stole the show. This deep, two-stringed, cello-like instrument imposed an Oriental flavour on this quintessentially English piece.
There was more fusion of east and west in Tan Dun’s In Distance for piccolo, harp and bass drum. Again, a fragmentary opening developed into a lyrical exploration in which instruments were pushed to their extremes and the bass drum was used almost like an Indian drum: patted, stroked, hit – using every conceivable sound available.
RLPO principal Jonathan Small brought proceedings to a close with Extase II for oboe and ensemble by Qigang Chen. This piece uses colour, and traditional and new sounds to frame a vivacious and searching piece. The huge demands placed on the soloist included massive phrases where circular breathing was necessary as well as minute inflections to tone. The hugely complex part was performed in an expert and virtuoso way. But the demands on players in the ensemble were equally daunting – the percussion in particular.
Another triumph for Ensemble 10/10 and its music director Clark Rundell. And a particularly Happy New Year for a bunch of highly gifted soloists.