RSS feed RSS Twitter Twitter Facebook Facebook 15 Questions 15 Questions

Concert Review/ Li Biao & Tan Lihua & Beijing Symphony Orchestra

img  Tobias

For a second, there, you could confuse Li Biao with a chef. Standing in the spotlight of the giant Krupp Hall's UFO-like dome, the Nanjing-born Percussionist has placed a total of six shining circular objects on the table in front of him. From a distance, they might as well be the lids of cooking pans. As soon as he starts hitting them with his mallets, however, they reveal their true identity as traditional Chinese Gongs. Beginning with cleansingly quiet brushes and singular notes, Biao starts building relationships between the metal in front of him. As his pace increases, so does the volume of his performance. Carefully caressed tones grow into frenzied outbursts of anger, dispair and sadness. As the Orchestra joins with beams of clustered colours, their voices combine into a solidified scream and an ecstatic elegy. Biao is no longer watching his own movements. Like a Formula 1 drver who has memorised his path, he is staring straight into a invisible distance front of him as his hands dance across the table, pounding the Gongs with ferocious energy until the outlines of his fingers start to blur. You want this music to stop, this torture to end and yet, all the same you want it to go on and on. For what seems like an eternity, it does, standing still in the same moment with clenched fists and a wordless howl on its lips.

It is Chinese night in the Philharmonie and you don't need to look at the program to come to that conclusion. From near and far, friends of the Beijing Symphony Orchestra and its soft-spoken leader Tan Lihua have traveled to Essen to see them play live and several visitors are donning traditional garments. Exclusively signed to EMI now, the Symphonics have this rare capability of making the differences between Asian and European traditions seem trivial and of presenting the cultural heritage of their country in a way that is neither shmaltzy nor academic. In the encores, their renditions of Chinese folk songs sound completely in place and like anything but easily digestible petitesses. Their interpretation of Mussorgsky's „Pictures at an Exhibition“, meanwhile, is brass-heavy and buoyant, not exactly revolutionary, but certainly powered by a playful enthusiasm. On this occasion, the orchestra's strengths are their expansive dynamics, which allow them to virtually blow their audiences away – especially in some of the more extrovert passages, sitting in the front rows is turning into a test of courage as Lihua conjurs up veritable storms of air and energy.

Still, the real treasures lie in the first half of the program, which highlights works by contemporary Chinese composers: Fang Kejie's „Re Ba Wu Qu“ is a sweet and sensuous opening, filled with cinematic string movements and a delicate blend of elements from back home and abroad. Timbral metaphors pierce the fabric of this simple, yet lushly orchestrated dance – with dangerously deep bowed Trombone breaths mimicking the signals of ancient Horns. Bao Yuankai's „Chinese Folk Songs“, meanwhile, feeds from the melodic bliss of its melodies and a sensitive balance between straightforward thematic development and impressionist reveling in pure sound. But it is „The Rite of Mountains“, which features the Gong section mentioned in the first parapgraph, which wins over the audience tonight. Written in the aftermath of the desastrous earthquake in the Sichuan province, which killed more than 70.000 people and left deep footprints of pain and agony in the nation's soul, it is a piece of dark timbres and stark contrasts. Originally conceived by its author Guo Wenjing as a meditation on the past before attaining its sad conceptual edge last year, it incorporates elements from Minimal music, Romanticism, chaotic Atonality, cacaphonous Polyphony, Tribalism and Peking Opera.

Each of „The Rite of Mountains“ three movements has a distinct flavour and mood. While Li Biao is rather an integral member of the group in the polystylistic opening, he is so much the soloist in the wild percussive finale (which sees him sprint back and forth from a giant drum to smaller batteries of tom toms) that the orchestra is all but put to silence for most of the piece's duration. It is the main achievement of the Being Symphonics tonight of adusting to these different roles with utmost dignity, fusing into a new sound body with the Marimba at one point and threateningly withholding their fury for several minutes in another before exploding in a white-hot supernova in the very last seconds.

Before the public is released into the intermission, Biao improvises over a self-devised pattern in memory of the death of a good friend. A consoling chord progression is looped as if rocking the mourner to sleep, rhythmically acentuated notes coallescing into soft impulse drones carried by plaintive harmonics. It's just one man and his Marimba down there, but an entire hall is glued to their seats, refusing to breathe for fear of breaking the spell. Li Biao may not be a chef, but he has certainly dished up a heavenly meal on this occasion.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Li Biao
Homepage: Beijing Symphony Orchestra
Homepage: Philharmonie Essen

Related articles

V.A.: "An anthology of Chinese Experimental Music 1992-2008"
Dazzling, diverse and dramatic: A ...
Interview with Li Biao
My first encounter with Chinese ...
15 Questions to Jon Mueller
When Jon Mueller announced that ...
15 Questions to Colin Currie
Originally, Percussionist Colin Currie was ...
Mauricio Sotelo: Wall of Light offers audiovisual Silence
Mauricio Sotelo is one of ...
CD Feature/ Jon Mueller & Jason Kahn: "Topography"
This is what they do ...
15 Questions to Michael Lipsey/ Talujon Percussion Ensemble
Many contemporary music groups pride ...
15 Questions to Pedro Carneiro
When "Improbable Transgressions" was released ...
CD Feature/ Pedro Carneiro: "Improbable Transgressions"
A work of dialogues: Carneiro’s ...

Partner sites