MUSIC / Somewhat lost in the translation: Stephen Johnson on Chinese musicians in concert on the South Bank - Stars of China: QEH, South Bank

WHERE does the culture-shock addict turn nowadays? The diversity of the world's cultures remains rich, but thanks to television and mass tourism it is no longer quite so strange. Even so, while the music and costumes of the traditional Chinese New Year celebrations seem almost familiar to sophisticated Westerners, there can still be surprises - Monday's 'Stars of China' concert, for instance.

The format was of a kind virtually extinct in this country: a collection of popular operatic numbers, sung here by an assortment of established and rising Chinese stars, with - to put it mildly - erratic piano accompaniments. Mixed with this were short balletic scenes, with dancers Ravenna Tucker and David Yow, and violin solos from Guo Chang - both rather better accompanied.

The strangeness was not only in the fusty formality of the programme, but in some of the performing styles. What did the largely Chinese audience's rapturous reception of Guo Chang and Chin-Yan Lau's performance of Sarasate's Carmen Fantasia indicate? Do different standards of phrasing and intonation prevail in China? For this Western listener, Guo Chang's playing was like thick glass - smooth and impenetrable. It was even more so in his Chausson Poeme. Guo Chang's gestures and facial expression were intense and concentrated - if only some of that had translated itself into music.

There was a similar feeling - or lack of it - about baritone Cao Qun's singing in numbers from Verdi's Ballo in maschera and Macbeth and Donizetti's Don Pasquale. Cao Qun's phrasing wasn't inelegant - far from it - nor was the sound unappealing, but any sense of involvement in the roles? It was more like watching a dignified demonstration of some decorative art, with nothing as messy as a real live human emotion allowed to intrude.

Against this stood the combination of warmth and musicality in the tenor Zhang Yalin's Puccini, Verdi, Leoncavallo and Bizet arias. Zhang Yalin is a poet as well as an attractive voice - shaping and shading could be subtle and affecting. His partner in the Carmen and Traviata duets was the soprano Nancy Yuen - recently a successful Butterfly with WNO and English National Opera. She too could phrase very persuasively, but there was one recurring problem - pitch. A few errant harmonies from the keyboard may not have helped, but then neither were they the cause.

As far as the dancers Tucker and Yow were concerned, there were no lapses and much to enjoy, even if watching segments of Don Quixote and La fille mal gardee to a distant piano accompaniment was strangely reminiscent of a colonial end-of-school concert. The idea that Chinese musicians cannot perform Western classical music has been eloquently disproved on a number of occasions - most recently by the violinist Xue Wei. For this critic, however, this was one of the oddest and most disconcerting evenings of music yet offered by London's adventure- conscious South Bank.

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