Colourful kitsch

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The Chinese Virtuoso Ensemble and Guang Yang


Monday night's gala concert at the Barbican was billed as "an evening of the best in Chinese Classical Music coupled with favourites from the Operatic and Lieder traditions of the West". The programme was as cumbersome, long and ill-planned as that suggests. Nor, I suspect, did we hear the best of Chinese Classical Music, for all the exquisitely precise playing of the nine brightly dressed young ladies in the Chinese Virtuoso Ensemble. Kitsch popular favourites, more like, with honeyed, pentatonic melodies and jolly dance rhythms. A solo called "Reflection of the Moon on the Springs", featuring the erhu, a two-stringed fiddle played upright on the knee, recalled nothing so much as the immaculate blandishments of Victor Sylvester; another for the xun, a sort of ocarina, accompanied by a zither, expressed the homesickness of a courtier of the Han dynasty married for diplomatic reasons to a nomad chieftain. All seven items in this chunk of the evening felt like a parade of performing talent drawn up to entertain tourists.

The mezzo-soprano Guang Yang, on the other hand, was very much flesh and blood. This remarkable singer worked in a textile factory, was talent- spotted by a manager and only graduated from the Chinese Central Conservatory in 1996. She won Cardiff Singer of the World last year, and no wonder. If a voice can ever be a perfect instrument, hers comes pretty near it. At the moment, she uses no changes of gear, and the vocal quality is even from top to bottom, with a consequent loss of volume very low. She was considerate to herself, she didn't force; yet she projected with huge confidence. At the start of the evening, Guang Yang was joined by the pianist Ingrid Surgenor, who was both strongly supportive and extremely sensitive. Two of the three Chinese songs they gave us were in an innocuous Western salon style. Rather like samples of finer stuff, they were followed by Beethoven's Ich liebedich, Schumann's ardent Er, der Herrlichste von allen from Frauenliebe und 'leben - sung with enthusiasm - and Strauss's great Zueignung - a singer's calling card, in which the composer teases the listener, and no doubt saves the singer, by leaving the pianist to spill the final climax. If the words weren't shaped with ideal clarity, it was evident that Guang Yang felt their meaning.

After the interval she was less sympathetically accompanied by the Bournemouth Sinfbonietta conducted by En Shao, who seemed not always to have agreed on mutually acceptable tempi, and also gave a miserable account of Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture. That didn't really upset Guang Yang, who fluttered delightfully through Mozart's Non so piu, and sang Dido's Lament by Purcell with noble simplicity. Since a concert can't really end with a suicide, it was followed by a switch to warm humour and a show of fine florid singing in Rossini's Una voce poco fa, in which Guang Yang's lowest notes may have modestly retired, but whose top fairly rattled the ear drums.

Adrian Jack