In the days of Mao Tse-tung, it used to called ping pong diplomacy. Chinese table tennis teams were sent abroad as a goodwill gesture in the Chou-en Lai- Richard Nixon era. Today, it’s Western classical music. The China philharmonic orchestra performed on Wednesday in Colombo as part of China’s 2016 Silk Route promotion.
While China’s politics are a matter of concern, nothing can detract from the orchestra’s classy performance. Chinese leaders are as nationalistic as ours or anyone else’s; but this orchestra shows that they have (unlike ours) got their priorities right.
They understand that Western music is a universal language, which does not threaten indigenous culture and traditions. Rather, it’s an achievement that can be proudly exported as a cultural show-piece. This is where the Chinese are miles ahead of us.
"The 46-member orchestra, largely young, and its brilliant conductor Xiaotang Xia performed Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major Op. 92 and Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64. Rui Liu, the latter featuring star violinist Rui Liu, along with several shorter pieces including a traditional Chinese melody, concluding with the overture from Mozart’s Opera, The Marriage of Figaro."
The 46-member orchestra, largely young, and its brilliant conductor Xiaotang Xia performed Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major Op. 92 and Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64. Rui Liu, the latter featuring star violinist Rui Liu, along with several shorter pieces including a traditional Chinese melody, concluding with the overture from Mozart’s Opera, The Marriage of Figaro.
The violin concerto in E minor, first performed in March 1845, was Mendelssohn’s last great work, and remains as popular as ever with its mellifluous opening melody and terrific first movement. Mendelssohn wasn’t the first composer to introduce his soloist at the start of a concerto; but he developed the idea of letting soloist and orchestra together explore the passages together instead of the traditional approach of having one for orchestra alone followed by a second played by the soloist.
It’s a demanding work and Mendelssohn wrote it with his friend, the German violinist Ferdinand David, in mind. The way it was interpreted by the 32-year-old Riu Liu would have made both David and Mendelssohn proud.
Dressed casually in a long-sleeved shirt and pants (in sharp contrast to the more formally dressed conductor and orchestra), he played with complete self-assurance, technical mastery and understated feeling, working his way his through those difficult soloist’s high E pieces in the final bar with consummate, even contemptuous, ease.
Beethoven wrote the seventh symphony in 1812 (The year of Waterloo) and it was first played at a charity concert for wounded soldiers. It was repeated four nights later by popular demand. Beethoven was a musical rebel and this symphony signalled a break with stylistic conventions hitherto practiced by Mozart and Haydn, his musical mentors. It is both lyrical and fierce in turn, hinting at the coming storm which the ninth symphony would be.
But Germany, having finally defeated Napoleon with the help of European allies, would now be on the path of becoming a world power, and it can’t be a coincidence that works by two German composers (Beethoven was Austrian but this hardly matters) were selected to be played here; China is firmly bent on becoming a world power herself. But what concerns us chiefly here is the power of the music, and all the hard work the Chinese people have put into turning China into one of the world’s powerhouses when it comes to Western classical music.
We need to learn a few things from this experience. The Chinese musicians, with a few exceptions who are naturally chubby, look very fit.
Rui Liu is now 32 but looks as fit as an athlete. The lesson is that, if you are professional, you cannot let yourself go due to stress and emotional strain. One can only imagine the pressures of reaching this level of competence in China.
There is a lesson here for some of our symphony orchestra members and other musicians. Nor does this orchestra attempt to look traditional.
Chinese musicians wear their traditional dress when playing traditional instruments. When they play Western music, they look the part.
These musicians used instruments made in China and performed in a theatre built by the Chinese, which would have made them immensely proud. What have we got to be proud of? Nelum Pokuna was declared open in 2011 and has become a white elephant, a venue for minor events.
This orchestra should have been invited for its opening, because that’s what it was designed for. But those behind the project didn’t have the wits to think of that. When will the symphony orchestra or Sri Lanka get invited to perform here?
It’s hard to understand, too, why the complex is still being run by the Army. It looks as if the country has been under the military rule. The junta has handed over power to civilians, but they are still unsure of what they want and can’t find the right people to run the country’s biggest theatre complex. It’s quite pathetic and completely beyond belief.