Musical insight to an ‘amazing’ land

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“Dreaming of Jiangnan”. Photo: Rob Kennedy

Music / “Dreaming of Jiangnan”, ANU Chinese Music Ensemble and Sydney Conservatorium of Music Chinese Music Ensemble. Australian Centre on China in the World, ANU. Reviewed by ROB KENNEDY

LIKE classical music from any country in the world, there is no one style that defines a nation. The pieces in this concert came from traditional Chinese music that crossed centuries and styles.

This concert was full of music that reflected on the Jiangnan region. Jiangnan is the area around the mouth of the Yangtze River. The region is famous for its sizhu or silk and bamboo ensembles, which are made up of string and wind musical instruments. Some of the instruments in this concert were the erhu (two-stringed fiddle), guzheng (zither), dizi (horizontal flute), xiao (vertical flute) and percussion.

Beginning with a piece for both ensembles titled “Purple Bamboo Melody”, this was a popular tune in musical theatre. Each type of instrument could be clearly discernible in among the rich textures that the ensembles created. This melody was played with enthusiasm and with an equal precision.

The delicacy of the sounds reflected the elusive aspects of nature, such as the softness of flowers and gentle rain. The subtle variations in the music felt like a contemplation on the moods and shades of the countryside, and the wildlife and waterways.

A piece titled “Tea Picking Song” gave off an industrious feel that would have fitted the rhythm of tea picking in the fields. There are many beloved songs of regional China, this was one.

Describing some of this music as happy or sad cannot be done by uneducated western ears. But diverse and charming it was. The individual colours, like in a western orchestral sound, stood out for their unique subtlety. Most pieces created a feeling of stillness that one gets when submerged in the shades of nature.

After the interval, the ensembles stood down and small groups and solos showed off the exquisiteness of individual instruments. A piece for the dizi and pipa, which is a four-stringed instrument that looks like a pear-shaped guitar, and is sometimes called the Chinese lute stood out for its alluring charm.

“High Mountain Flowing Water” was written around 220 BC. This stunning work for solo Guzheng cast a mystical spell through the bending of notes, and the delicate picking and strumming of its 21 strings to tell an ancient story.

The two-stringed fiddle the Eruh can create a human-like crying sound. The next piece for an Eruh quartet was played to a recorded contemporary song that had the audience swaying and almost crying themselves.

The final two works “Misty Rain in Jiangnan” and “The Beauty of Lake Tai”, were performed by both ensembles. This touching and living music spoke many stories of the countryside of China, its people and journeys across this ancient and new land. Music can tell you so much about the culture of a people. The songs played in this concert offered a musical insight of this amazing land.

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