The Song and Dance of Tears [UK premiere]
Turangalîla Symphony

Yo-Yo Ma (cello)
Wu Man (pipa)
Wu Tong (sheng)
Joel Fan (piano)

Paul Crossley (piano)
Cynthia Millar (ondes martenot)

London Sinfonietta
David Robertson

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 13 August, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Billed as the London Sinfonietta, the orchestra for this performance would have been better called ‘London Sinfoniettas’ as there were three or four times the number of players you usually find at a Sinfonietta concert. Thankfully, with just two works, we were spared the interminable stage-changes that characterise a ‘normal’ Sinfonietta event.

Of course, there are those that would offer no makeweight for Turangalîla, but this is the Proms. I had assumed that Bright Sheng’s The Song and Dance of Tears was for four instruments … then the whole orchestra came on. David Robertson was shifted to one side (towards the cellos) to accommodate the soloists.

What followed was a trio concerto – for cello, pipa (Chinese lute) and sheng (Chinese wind instrument, a sort of cross between bagpipes and accordion) – with a truly wasted piano part thrown in. No wonder Emanuel Ax opted not to repeat the solo part; the work having been written at the request of the New York Philharmonic to celebrate the 25th anniversaries of both Yo-Yo Ma’s and Emanuel Ax’s debuts with the orchestra.

For the record, Sheng travelled the Silk Road (the programme had a photo of him atop a Bactrian camel) and came back with 100 hours of taped music from the various regions, particularly western China, where he had been sent during the Cultural Revolution. None of his music is traditional, Sheng’s original ideas being filtered through the music he had heard. For the trio of principal soloists he has created some beautiful sounds, with Ma’s cello a perfect accompaniment to both Wu Man’s plaintive and gently amplified pipa and Wu Tong’s subtler sheng (faring less well through such amplification). The rapt, slow passages for this intimate trio (sometimes duo combinations) came off best, while the orchestral interjections were as unnecessary as the piano part.

And, of course, it was immediately forgotten as soon as Messiaen’s joyous orgy started. It was not, however, a particularly well-behaved audience, with a mobile phone adding unwanted interjections to the end of a movement, a barrage of coughs, particularly noticeable through the slowest movement, ‘Garden of the Sleep of Love’, and an amazingly large number of early leavers that formed an almost constant procession towards the end of the work.

Perhaps all this had an effect on my appreciation. I thought the performance started well – and the balance of piano and ondes martenot seemed to settle quickly – but towards the end I was less convinced. There were moments when the brass were incredibly raucous.

Having said that, Robertson’s layout – with its line of orchestral percussionists almost adrift from the rest of the orchestra on the final level of the stage, making this contribution more visible and telling than usual – emphasised Messiaen’s extraordinary conception created using only a normal orchestra (no harp, no timpani even). Paul Crossley and Cynthia Miller, old hands at this work, were (from their smiles) enjoying every minute of it, with the other featured players – John Constable on celeste, Richard Benjafield on glockenspiel and David Hockings on vibraphone – close by, immediately in front of an all-dancing Robertson. At the last, however, there was just ‘something’ missing.

  • Concert rebroadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday 23 August at 2.00 p.m.
  • BBC Proms 2004

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