Beyond the Wall: Chinese Music at the Barbican

Featuring Tan Dun, Lang Lang, LSO, BBC SO, Harding, Wu Man, Kronos, Liu Sola and others

11 February 2009

Tan Dun

The Barbican, LSO St. Luke's and Union Chapel in Islington will host a remarkable series of concerts over the next few months as part of their Beyond the Wall festival. Focusing on a wide range of Chinese music - from folk to classical, crossover to underground - the festival boasts an impressive line-up of performers and premieres. Over nine concerts, beginning in March and concluding in May, Lang Lang, Tan Dun, Kronos Quartet, Wu Man, the LSO and BBC SO, Hanggai, Daniel Harding, and the Theatre of Voices led by Paul Hillier, amongst others, will jointly expose the diversity of current Chinese musical activity, a diversity that can now at least rival in some meaningful way the explosion of musical activity that has taken place in their neighbouring country Japan over the last thirty or forty years.

The first concert, which will take place on 21 March, will feature Tan Dun conducting the BBC SO in the UK premiere of his concerto for cello, video and orchestra, entitled The Map. Tan Dun embodies the current plurality of voice in modern China more than most; his compositional idiom-wild and vibrant as it is-makes play with various elements from Eastern and Western traditions, both folk and classical, and old and new, and it is fitting that his music forms the central strand in the Beyond the Wall festival. He has turned his hand to Oscar winning film scores (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), hybridised Western forms such as his concerto for pipa (Chinese lute) and string orchestra (read our review of the Moscow Soloists recording here), opera, and even worldwide interactive indeterminacy, as discussed below, all with equal degrees of intent, and interest. His cello concerto features video of traditional performers from the Hunan province set against the Occidental strains of the symphony orchestra. This concert will be preceded by the Zhangjiajie Folk Daliuzi Group in the foyer of the Barbican performing music to ancient rituals, courtship songs, and traditional stories.

The second concert is a very starry affair indeed (Barbican, April 21), with the LSO under Daniel Harding giving the UK premiere, with the original soloist Lang Lang, of Tan Dunís piano concerto The Fire. They will follow this with Mahler 1, whilst the concert will open with Tan Dun introducing his own YouTube Internet Symphony 1; Eroica, a fascinating recent project where soloists from around the world were invited to pick any part of the freely available electronic score, record themselves performing the part on any applicable instrument, and send their video to YouTube in the hope of getting selected to perform the work as part of the inaugural YouTube Symphony Orchestra in Carnegie Hall.

Lang LangLSO St. Lukeís then hosts two interesting programs in April (23 and 26 April respectively), the first of which will feature Lang Lang again, this time in a joint recital with the London-based Chinese quartet Silk Strings, a group who perform modern and traditional folk on Chinese string instruments. The second shines a light on Beijing's burgeoning underground scene, with an array of artists- from the drone noise artist Yan Jun, to the electronic musicians FM3, to the syncretic artist Xiao He, who puts a modern spin on traditional Chinese music, and others, joining for a night of noise and nuance. Entitled Beijing Now, this event promises to be among perhaps the most promising on the schedule, where the richness and growth of Chinese cultural activity will show another dimension-that of the counterculture, albeit heavily Westernised notions of such, to Londoners.

On 10 May Wu Man, the renowned pipa player, will perform at the Barbican with Kronos Quartet Tan Dun's Ghost Opera, the source material for the aforementioned pipa concerto. This piece is a wild joyride through kaleidoscope cultural references-from Bach to Chinese traditional melody. It is paired for this concert with Yuanlin Chen's Tribe Among Mountains, a world premiere co-commissioned by the Barbican, and it should not be missed. Liu Sola, a Chinese composer for whom eclectic is too narrow a term (she has fronted psychedelic bands, is a published author, has studied the blues in the Mississippi Delta, and of course writes notated compositions that revel in that variety), provides the music on May 12 at LSO St. Luke's, where her chamber opera The Afterlife of Li Jiantong will receive its world premiere. The line-up includes Chinese percussion from Beijing Opera, the Theatre of Voices, and Andrew Lawrence-King on harp. The Beyond the Wall festival concludes on May 16 in Islington with a night of unusual crossover music. Hanggai mix throat singing with rock instrumentation (focusing on Mongolian songs), whilst Marmur founded the alt-country scene in China, and is a legendary figure on the Chinese underground scene. This concluding concert promises to draw the festival to a close in fittingly eclectic style.

Beyond the Wall is an admirably multifarious enterprise, both in terms of performers engaged, and music commissioned and included. The range of concerts, as will be clear, is truly bewildering, and whilst the popular events will always be those populated by the Lang Langs and Kronos Quartets of this world, I suspect our musical muscles might respond as much, if not more, to some of the more esoteric fare that is on offer throughout this very broad programme of activity.

By Stephen Graham

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