Chinese walls

Music: Shiva Nova / Chinese Gala Purcell Room, London
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A pair of concerts last weekend gave rare insights into the unfamiliar world of Chinese music. On Friday, in a subtly controlled ambience of lighting and electronics, traditional pipa and dulcimer joined forces for the first time with the innovative Eurasian ensemble Shiva Nova, playing to a lively, mixed crowd in the Purcell Room. The following day, with the same venue now restored to its usual Spartan inelegance, distinguished Chinese musicians performed European repertoire to a home-grown "gala" audience, and with hardly a Westerner in sight.

Group improvisation is Shiva Nova's speciality, and from the opening Meditation 1, by artistic director Priti Paintal, it was clear that both guests had much to add to its range and flexibility. In several smaller ensembles that followed, Li Lisha's pipa tone contrasted intriguingly with the cloudy resonance of sitar, while the silvery flourishes and whirling repetition of Xu Pingxin's dulcimer made quick-witted duets and trios with Kashmiri zither and cello. Flautist Rowland Sutherland further extended the range of action in Picture This, exploring avant-garde techniques with sitarist Dharambir Singh.

The traditional repertoire of pipa and dulcimer being lyrical and pictorial, they were equally confident in the night's new work, Monk's Delight, a fascinating hybrid of story, song and improvisation. Based on a mythic account of the coming of Buddhism to China, the text proved both an ideally balanced libretto, read with charm and clarity by Vayu Naidu, and a perfect foil to the cultural exchanges enacted in the music. Flute and keyboard added sustaining sonorities to the diverse instrumental palette, delivering scrunchy pile-ups for battle scenes, and cascades of plucked or beaten string arpeggios for moments of mystery and surprise. Reflective choruses from vocalist Brenda Rattray also lent depth and restraint to this fusion of notated and freshly squeezed invention.

By contrast, Saturday's players seemed by and large to have left their culture in the cloakroom, Taiwan-born violinist Leland Chen playing morceaux by Elgar, Kreisler and Wieniawski, and baritone Wei-Ting Chen singing "gala" repertoire by Tchaikovsky and Verdi. Culture gained admittance, though, in two recent works from opposite poles of method and metaphysics. Bright Sheng's My Song, played by pianist Mary Mei-Loc Wu, poured a rich sauce of 20th-century folk styles over a simple Chinese tune; Wen Loong- Hsing's 12 Zodiac Animals, for violin and piano, mixed John Cage and the I Ching in its copious silences. While the Sheng was more attractive, the Loong-Hsing seemed more enduring. As Shiva Nova testify, while artistic disguise is fun, it's not half as interesting as real give-and-take.

Nicholas Williams