China Philharmonic Orchestra, Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture

Hot on the heels of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, a second classical ensemble from South-east Asia arrived to make the region's cultural influence felt in Britain.

Hot on the heels of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, a second classical ensemble from South-east Asia arrived to make the region's cultural influence felt in Britain.

The China Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO) came into life this century: May 2000. It had a previous incarnation as the China Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra and still comes under the auspices of "China Radio, Film and Television Group".

The CPO, which has been on a long tour, made its London debut with a very eclectic repertory. I've always wondered at South-east Asia's strong interest in Western classical music. In the Twenties and Thirties, the likes of Heifetz, Rubinstein, and Feuermann all trouped around the region to rapturous audiences: it was a well-established trail. Then and now, the record market was one of the largest. So welcoming the massive CPO was bound to be interesting.

The concert began, somewhat surprisingly, with Dvorák's huge cello concerto. This work is hardly an opener: the woodwind section is exposed and not warmed up; tuning goes for a burton. It took the strings to come in to give reassurance that out-of-tune playing was not a permanent characteristic.

A permanent characteristic, however, soon emerged: this orchestra - particularly its brass section - plays very loudly indeed. The opening tutti before the soloist enters is a long one. We were treated to loveless wind, tuning as worrisome as vibrato-less colouring and a wildly excited full orchestra.

The cellist Jian Wang's opening flourish, however, had all the subtly and understanding missing from the orchestra. I've rarely heard so authoritative an opening, so intense and focused, and as the movement continued to the second subject, Wang poured forth his glorious sound, finely shaped and intelligently felt.

Long Yu, the conductor and artistic director, has some strange ideas about rubato, over-using it to leave the listener distinctly queasy at times. But what a helpful soloist Wang proved, always looking up to signal when he and the orchestra should properly coincide.

The wind was no better in tune by the beginning of the (exposed) second movement but Wang's huge sound more or less drowned it out. The horns' sour tuning at the beginning of the third movement, however, might well have explained Wang's very serious take on Dvorak's risoluto. Wang turned in a stupendous performance.

The soprano Luwa Ke is a diva-in-the-making with all the clichés known to man. In Xiaogang Ye's The Song from the Earth, she waved her arms around theatrically, singing (with a yawning vibrato) across the stage, rather than to the audience, a reworking (in Chinese) of the poems that inspired Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. Her gestures had little apparent relevance to the English translation. And Bartók's Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin was loud and coarse.

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