Chinese musicians offer a mixed banquet

New Frontiers 2006

Featuring the Vancouver Chinese Music Ensemble. At the Vancouver East Cultural Centre on Saturday, April 8

Eating dim sum on the morning after the Vancouver Chinese Music Ensemble's Saturday-night concert, it occurred to me that Cantonese cuisine encompasses dishes of the most exquisite subtlety, a variety of things that look inedible but prove delicious, and an array of comestibles that are just not going to get anywhere near my mouth. A similar diversity could be found in the previous night's offerings, which ranged from works of great appeal to others that were frankly hard to stomach.

Of course, an alternative taxonomic system might characterize the VCME's menu as being split between traditional fare, modern Chinese cooking, and fusion food, all served up with varying degrees of success.

Of the traditional compositions, by far the most striking was Su Wu Tending Sheep, which featured Zhong Xi Wu on the suona, or Chinese oboe. Like much mountain music, this shepherd's plaint was probably intended to be heard from a great distance, and the tone of the suona-which sounds like a cross between a soprano saxophone and a giant kazoo-is at least as penetrating as any alpenhorn. But Wu, clearly pleased to be in the spotlight, gave the stirring tune a vibrant and good-humoured rendition.

Modernity was represented by VCME leader Ji-Rong Huang's 9/11-inspired Courage and Jin Zhang's Hou Yi Shot the Suns, a musical adaptation of an ancient Chinese story with clear relevance to the contemporary threat of global warming. In Hou Yi, the eponymous hero shoots nine out of 10 suns from the sky so that humanity can live. The suns were represented, visually and musically, by enormous kettledrums; the parched Earth was invoked by the grinding and crushing of actual stones, laid out in a metal bowl by composer-conductor Zhang's side; and Yi's battle preparations involved an audience-participation chant of "Ho, ho, ho-ho," which ended up sounding like a massed chorus of Santas. It was weirdly compelling nonetheless.

Courage, on the other hand, found erhu virtuoso Huang turning his considerable talents on the Chinese violin to a programmatic depiction of the destruction of the World Trade Center, complete with sirens, screaming, and wholly unironic snippets of "Amazing Grace", "The Star-Spangled Banner", "O Canada", and "It's a Long Way to Tipperary". I kid you not.

Questions of compositional taste aside, the VCME is to be congratulated on its willingness to break from musical orthodoxy, and the fusion part of the program was supplied by composers Mark Armanini and Michael O'Neill. Armanini's Spring, a zhongruan or moon-lute solo for Zhu Min Yu, was too meandering to be judged successful, but his ensemble piece, Goldfish, was quite pretty. O'Neill's Turkish Rug for a Log Cabin Near Quanzhou bettered that by being beautiful, although it was given a somewhat hesitant first performance.

In general, the VCME could benefit from the seasoning a busier touring schedule might provide. Its performers are undeniably gifted musicians, but they don't always sound fully committed to their material; surprisingly, that seems equally true whether the songs are traditional, modern, or multicultural. Despite its inconsistencies, however, the concert was enjoyable-and a true representation of Vancouver's increasingly diverse cultural climate.