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Arts & Culture ... ...
    Chinese composers take up the baton
Chen Jie
2004-09-14 05:41

The Beijing Symphony Orchestra kicked off its new 2004/05 season with Mahler's "Ninth Symphony in D Minor" at the Forbidden City Concert Hall early this month.

However, as with previous seasons, Chinese symphonic works will constitute a major part of the programme for the 2004/05 season of the Beijing Symphony Orchestra.

"As one of the leading local Chinese symphony orchestras, it's our duty to introduce Chinese works and support Chinese composers," says Tan Lihua, artistic director of the Beijing Symphony Orchestra.

In addition to classical works such as the pipa concerto "The Hero Sisters on the Grassland" (Caoyuan Yingxiong Xiaojiemei), the orchestra will play many new works including Tang Jianping's percussion concerto "Cang Cai" (which refers to the sound of cymbals), Huang Anlun's "Third Symphony" and Tan Dun's "Orchestral Theatre O," "Pipa Concerto" and "The Map."

Meanwhile, Tan Dun will conduct the Beijing Symphony Orchestra to play three of his own works in the 2004 Beijing Music Festival.

According to Tan Lihua, the Chinese works will be mainly featured in May, 2005. He also revealed that the orchestra will regularly hold Chinese Week each May to play the latest contemporary Chinese music.

Composer Wang Xilin has been appointed composer-in-residence of the Beijing Symphony Orchestra. He is revising his sixth symphony "2008," which was commissioned by the Beijing Symphony Orchestra and premiered in May 2004. The new version will be performed in the 2004/05 season.

Great No 9 symphonies

Apart from the Chinese works, Tan has made the orchestra's 2004/05 season the season of Ninth Symphonies.

After Mahler's "Ninth Symphony in D Minor," Schubert will follow with his "Ninth Symphony in C Major" at the same venue on Friday.

Tan Lihua selected the ninth symphonies as the main theme for the 2004/05 season. "It is not coincidental that the ninth symphony is often the last creation of many great composers and they all achieved big success with these last symphonic works," says Tan.

"The works of a composer's later life could often fully display their achievements. Many of them concluded their view of life, of human beings or of the world in their final symphonies. And they took the last symphony to triumphant pinnacles," he said.

Therefore, he decided to perform most of the famous ninth symphonies in one season including those by Mahler, Schubert, Beethoven, Dvorak and Bruckner.

Each of the five No 9 symphonies is significant to the composer himself as well as to the history of Western classical music.

The music of Gustav Mahler towers over the symphonic repertoire. He abandoned the traditional four-movement dogma of Brahms and Bruckner, orchestrated his scores for ensembles of unprecedented size and power and injected his scores with previously unheard of depth and complexity.

Yet, Mahler's ninth and last symphony "Song of the Earth" returns to the standards he had helped demolish years earlier. The symphony features only four movements, is scored for a modestly apportioned orchestra and seems to conform to classical standards of orchestration and texture.

But it is no retreat to tradition, for the music itself is fraught with difficulties beyond any of Mahler's previous works.

With the ninth, Mahler tried to return to his uncomplicated past, to relive his troubled life and to cram all his misery and hope into four simple movements.

If Mahler's symphonies read like a novel, or a play, Anton Bruckner's read like architecture. By reputation, this Austrian composer was a simple soul with no social graces and a childlike faith in God.

Bruckner's "Ninth Symphony" which is dedicated to "the dear God" strands us in the vibrating cosmos.

The ninth, like Le Corbusier's pilgrimage chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Haut at Ron-champ, inverts the Gothic proportions of mass and space, undermining tonality and every other received notion of how a symphony should sound. It's music for the millennium.

Beethoven's "Ninth Symphony in D Minor" is the first substantial example of a major composer using the human voice on par with instruments in a symphony.

This symphony may be the best known work of classical music, and plays a prominent cultural role in modern society.

Although completed in 1824, Beethoven was working on the "Ninth Symphony" off and on for much of his adult life since he was inspired by Friedrich von Schiller's poem "Ode to Joy" in 1793 when he was only 22 years old.

Many recognize Dvorak's Largo from his ninth symphony, "From the New World in E Minor," an irresistible theme written during three years the composer spent in America in the mid-1890s, teaching in New York and summering among Czech emigrants in the Midwest.

Its irresistible appeal made Dvorak's ninth one of the most performed symphonies, at many important concert halls.

Perhaps more than any other successful composer, Franz Schubert struggled mightily with one form, the symphony.

In 1813, the 16-year-old Schubert completed his first symphony and continued with five more symphonies over the next four years, all of which were composed relatively rapidly and without apparent signs of difficulty or second thought.

But after the sixth, trouble set in, starting with two failed attempts at the seventh. The third attempt finished with many blank pages, for the composer wrote down only the melody, apparently intending to fill in the other instruments later.

His eighth symphony known as the "Unfinished" has only the first two movements in complete form and a sketch of the scherzo.

By the time Schubert attempted his ninth, seven years had passed without the completion of a full symphony. Most of his recent attempts had led to dead ends, and he must have begun to wonder whether he still had the ability to write large orchestral works.

Nevertheless, he tried again and produced his so-called "Great" C major symphony. This time he overcame his block, and produced an outstanding work that firmly established him as a master of the form.

But the demon of completion would haunt him to the end, for his premature death terminated the tenth even though he was once again in full control of his creativity, and it is thus that his ninth stands as the pinnacle of his orchestral accomplishments.


Since the Beijing Symphony Orchestra was established in October 1977, a number of veteran Chinese musicians have devoted efforts to support it and train the musicians and conductors of younger generations.

The elder musicians have helped the orchestra to accumulate a rich repertoire of nearly 200 works by composers of different nations and time periods.

In the mid 1980s, Tan Lihua worked as the assistant of the late conductor Li Delun who is the pioneer of spreading Western classical music in China and the first chief conductor of the Beijing Symphony Orchestra.

In the new season, Tan will invite some old conductors of Li's generation such as Huang Xiaotong, Huang Feili, Hang Zhongjie, Xu Xin and Zhu Hui to take the baton.

Besides Chinese veteran musicians, a number of musicians from abroad will be guests in the 2004/05 season.

Belgian conductor Eric Lederhandler, Canadian conductor Kerry Stratton, Mexican conductor Felix Carrasco and Italian conductor Stefano Mazzoleni are among the guests scheduled to appear.

"Symphonic music was born in the West. The Western musicians are native of the art. So we try to invite more talented foreign musicians to work with us together," says Fei Bing, in charge of the press and information of the orchestra.

"The communication will do good for the orchestra and help us make progress season by season," says Fei.

(China Daily 09/14/2004 page14)


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