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Beijing festival top-heavy with maestros
By Chen Jie (China Daily)
Updated: 2004-10-12 08:46

Music lovers will be eagerly anticipating the coming Thursday as it is the day the Seventh Beijing Music Festival opens which will run to November 5.

Raising the curtain with the opera "Romeo & Juliet" co-produced by Chinese and French artists, the three-week long festival will present 27 performances including symphony, chamber, recital, opera, folk and modern music.

Yu Long, artistic director of the annual festival, says the general quality of this year's event is higher than the previous six years' with not one concert lacking top musicians.

Some figures and names may add weight to his words:

Six world-famous conductors, Christoph Eschenbach, Charles Dutoit, Michel Plasson, Philip Pickett, Tan Dun and Yu Long;

Three well-known pianists, Jean Yves Thibaudet, Emanuel Ax and Murray Perahia;

Four violinists, Lin Cho-Liang , Shlomo Mintz, Renaud Capucon and Maxim Vengerov;

Four chamber orchestras, the Eroica Trio, Vienna String Soloists, Munich Chamber Orchestra and Sabine Meyer Trio (Trio de Clarone);

Three symphony orchestras, the Orchestra de Paris, UBS Verbier Festival Orchestra and Italian Toscanini Philharmonic Orchestra.

As the Year of France in China is upon us, this year's Beijing Music Festival will feature a number of works and artists from France, a country with a long and rich history of culture and music.

The opera "Romeo & Juliet" by French composer Charles Gounod who is famous for his opera "Faust" will open the festival. It will be the first time the festival has opened with an opera.

Shakespeare's romantic story of eternal love that overcomes death, "Romeo & Juliet" has become a token of passion and love for many generations.

It has also inspired quite a few artists to adapt productions from it. The well-known ones include Prokofiev's ballet, Berlioz and Berllini's composition and the musical "Westside Story."

Gournod's five-act opera which premiered in 1867 is famous for its beautiful arias and duets.

The version to be shown at the Beijing Music Festival is based on that directed by Nicolas Joel with the Theatre Capitole of Toulouse.

The setting, costumes and lightings are all provided by the French opera theatre. The Shanghai Opera House Choir and China Philharmonic Orchestra will collaborate in the show. Yu Long, who is also artistic director of the China Philharmonic Orchestra, takes the baton, while Arnaud Bernard from the Theatre Capitole of Toulouse works as director.

The cast features Albanian soprano Inva Mula whose dazzling voice impressed local audiences at an opera gala with the Teatro La Fenice from Venice in last year's Beijing Music Festival. So Yu invited her back to Beijing this year to star as Juliet in the opening opera.

Other actors include Chinese tenor Zhang Jianyi as Romeo, mezzo-soprano Liang Ning as Stephano, tenor Chi Liming as Tybalt, and baritone Liao Changyong as Capulet. All are Chinese vocalists who have won fame and prizes abroad.

The artists from both countries worked devotedly and happily, rehearsing in the Beijing Movie Studio, resident hall of China Philharmonic Orchestra and now the Poly Theatre where they will debut the opera on October 14 and 16.

"Everyone is prepared. They are professional. Chinese people work faster than we French people," director Bernard says with a sense of humour during a rehearsal break.

"Although we have different cultures, the Chinese artists understand the story and the music very well. They are not only vocal talents but also act well," he says.

Bernard reveals that he is very faithful to the original version of Nicolas Joel's production by the Theatre Capitole of Toulouse.

"It's a classic production, romantic themes combining with dramatic scenes. I do not think it needs many changes. Many directors in Europe try to make it a modern opera, a production of the 20th century. I just modify in a subtle way," he adds.

To make the fight scenes life-like, the director also invited a fencing coach to teach the actors.

Following the opera, French pianist Jean Yves Thibaudet will give a recital and Orchestra de Paris will perform under the baton of Christoph Eschenbach.

Except for the France theme, opera functions as the other eye-attracting point in this year's festival.

"As usual, opera is a focus of the Beijing Music Festival. In previous years, we have had the classical 'Tosca,' 'Nabucco,' the modern production 'Lu Lu,' the Chinese opera 'Night Banquet' (Ye Yan) and 'Diary of a Mad Man' (Kuangren Riji). This year we offer a diverse programme of opera," says Yu.

Besides "Romeo & Juliet," Monteverdi's "L'Orfeo" produced by New London Orchestra, "The Wager" composed by Chinese musician Wen Deqing who now resides in Switzerland, and a puppet opera "Magic Flute" by the Marionette Theatre of Schonbrunner, Vienna, will be shown.

Contrasting with "L'Orfeo," which was composed by Italian musician Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) and debuted in 1607, "Peony Pavilion" (Mudan Ting), a Chinese folk opera production of a similar time, will be featured in the festival.

Chastened love

Written by one of the most renowned dramatists in ancient China, Tang Xianzu (1550-1616), "Peony Pavilion," which tells of a young lady's chastened love in an extremely conservative society, is a trade mark work of the Kunqu Opera, which is a folk opera with some 600 years of history, combining song, dance, poetry and drama.

The Kunqu Opera was listed as a "masterpiece of oral and intangible culture heritage" by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 2001.

"You could call it a East-meets-West-programme or cultural comparison. We specifically chose the two theatrical productions which were from a close time. Tang and Monteverdi were representatives of culture and music at that time respectively in the East and West. Audiences can compare the two works, feel the similarity and clash between the two plays as well as the two cultures," explains Yu.

Finally, never forget that Chinese musicians and Chinese works, no matter if folk, traditional or modern, are always a highlight of the Beijing Music Festival.

"It's our mission to show concern for the development of Chinese music and promote Chinese musicians to the world," says Yu.

"I hope the annual festival is a platform where Chinese and foreign musicians can communicate with each other and Chinese music can be shared to more listeners from home and abroad."

In the previous years, the festival has presented concerts by Chen Qigang, Guo Wenjing, Ye Xiaogang, Qu Xiaosong and Sheng Zongliang, whose works have enjoyed great fame abroad but could seldom be heard at home.

This year, besides Wen Deqing's opera "The Wager," Tan Dun, the Oscar-award winning musician, will conduct the Beijing Symphony Orchestra in its performance of "O" for String Orchestra, Concerto for Pipa and String Orchestra and "Map" for Cello, Video and Orchestra.

Audiences can also enjoy Yo Yo Ma's recital, pianist Lin Cho-Liang and cellist Wang Jian's chamber concert with Emanuel Ax.

In addition, there are two concerts featuring Chinese traditional and folk instruments such as the erhu, pipa, dizi, guzheng, guqin and yangqin.

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