St Illtud’s Church, Llantwit Major, May 20 2015
Soloists from China’s National Centre for the Performing Arts Orchestra
This year’s Vale of Glamorgan Festival, as ever, wore its internationalist credentials lightly. Yet it featured an impressive thirty-four living composers* from ten different countries near and far. To perform their music, artistic director John Metcalf brought together an exceptional, likewise global array of soloists and ensembles, resulting in some exciting and unusual cultural exchanges.
Many people are aware of the massive recent surge in enthusiasm for Western classical music across China, as increasing numbers of stunning instrumentalists – pianists in particular – emerge from there and the Far East more generally. What fewer may have noted is a parallel rise in composers from East and West alike who are bridging once seemingly enormous cultural divides with the same enthusiasm as that once shown, for instance, across the political divide between European composers from different sides of the Iron Curtain before, and especially after, its fall.
Metcalf has been forging links with Chinese musicians and composers for many years, notably Qigang Chen (b.1951), the most senior to be represented at the Vale in 2015. At St Illtud’s Church in Llantwit Major, we met a far younger generation in composer Yanchen Ye (b.1992) and seven string players: soloists from China’s National Centre for the Performing Arts Orchestra, here premiering a piece by Ye alongside performances of works by three composers from Estonia, Bulgaria and Wales.
Before the concert, I interviewed Dobrinka Tabakova on stage; a composer with a unique and radiant voice who bridges the worlds – to put it simplistically – between ancient and modern. Having settled in the UK in 1991 (aged 11, with her family, and following that same fall of the Iron Curtain), Tabakova’s richly melodic, passionate music also reveals a deep feeling for her Bulgarian roots. We talked about her sumptuous tonal-modal harmonic language, and she described how some people have even heard Chinese-sounding elements in the first piece on the programme: the string septet, Such Different Paths (2007/8). When she’d put that idea to the soloists in rehearsal, apparently they’d replied, no, not Chinese – but maybe Mongolian. Thereby hangs a tale of fascinating cultural perceptions beyond the scope of this review.
In the event, the soloists gave a forthright, if not yet entirely fluid, first account of Tabakova’s septet (here conducted by the composer**), in which one ‘different path’ after another joins together across the ensemble to blend into a whole of exquisite, shifting perspectives and affinities – with a gorgeous, soaring violin solo redolent of the English romantic pastoralism associated with figures such as Finzi and Vaughan Williams.
Arvo Pärt’s Solfeggio (1963/2008), an early work, originally composed for a cappella mixed choir, did indeed elicit a singing quality from the players. The string trio which then took to the stage had by now clearly settled in. Tabakova’s Insight (2002) was given a lush, spirited performance, albeit with the most technically demanding, faster passages proving tricky to play. However, the trio roundly succeeded in communicating Tabakova’s desire to explore aural and visual ‘pictures’ beyond the abstract sonic world of the three instruments. An accordion and a brass choir were two of many suggestive images explored as the trio eventually entwined into one, beautifully resonant unified field.
Regarding the piece which opened the concert’s second half, I have to confess an interest as its composer, the Cardiff-based Peter Reynolds, is a dear friend and colleague. So, naturally, I was delighted that the Chinese soloists gave his Bye Baby Bunting (1987 – 93) such a sensitive performance. Also scored for string trio, the piece demonstrates Reynolds’ highly effective, clever use of what on the surface appear simple materials and structures, alongside his characteristic quirky humour and ear for textural detail. He doesn’t so much deconstruct as gently wind and unwind the well-known nursery rhyme of the title through a series of turns around its basic constituents, the notes C, A and D. And it wasn’t just the trio, myself and the audience sitting in the pews who enjoyed the piece, for a blackbird outside whistled those exact notes in clear echo of the music at one point during the performance. I can’t think of a higher, more appropriate accolade.
The soloists were now completely at ease, and went on to give a rapt, moving performance of Pärt’s Da pacem Domine, written as a tribute to the victims of the Madrid bombing in March 2004.
Finally, Yanchen Ye’s modestly entitled Two Pieces – by a composer less than a third of the Estonian’s age – turned out to be a splendidly assertive septet, constructed in two parts with a fine sense of character and pace. Drawing on stylistic elements of the music of southern China, a simple cello vibrato sets a train of musical events in motion, exploring different extensions and mutations of Ye’s material through, firstly, a Fantasy and then a Rondo. There were many striking moments, but it was the relaxed integrity of the piece which most impressed, moving from hushed harmonics to biting, Bartókian cross-rhythms, and with a gamut of playful expressive devices in between.
I look forward to hearing more of Ye’s music – as I hope to be able to hear these young musicians hone and develop their art, now that the musical dialogue between Wales and China is gathering momentum. It would be good to get the chance to welcome them again at the Vale in years to come.
* With the sad exception of Australian Peter Sculthorpe, who died last summer.
** The soloists performed the work again, unconducted, but with reported fluency, at a further concert at Cardiff’s Norwegian Church on May 22.