Review&Thoughts: QSO Year of the Monkey

In my 21 and a half years of living in Brisbane, I’d never stepped foot into City Hall – until Thursday night, when I went to see the QSO play a program tailored to celebrate Chinese New Year – the year of the monkey. I was pleased to see children there, as well as the elderly, and a healthy mix of cultures. It was somewhat comforting to hear the chatter of Mandarin in the background, though the thought of ‘do they think I’m one of those ABCs that don’t understand Mandarin!?’ ran through my head a few times too many.

I enjoyed the bilingual nature of the announcements, and I don’t know if it’s a little embarrassing to say that I took a little bit of joy in the fact that I could understand both languages. The conductor, Darrell Ang, also hosted the event somewhat, introducing the soloists of the night, providing commentary and translating services when needed, as well as a healthy dose of humour. In short, the soloists were all virtuosic indeed.

I will always have a soft spot in my heart for traditional Chinese folk songs. I wasn’t brought up on them, but there’s something about the timbre of these songs that really speaks to me. Aoyun, a mezzo soprano, performed three pieces, all in Mandarin. Tones do tend to go all funny when they’re put in song, so I had to concentrate a little harder than usual to tease out the meaning of the song without resorting to a translation. She came out in three spectacularly opulent (and probably also heavy) costumes, and the rich quality of her voice captured the warmth I associate with Chinese New Year.

Ma Xiaohui played the erhu, and was quite simply, a delight. I’d only previously heard the erhu played on the streets of Malaysia by buskers, so it was amazing to hear it in concert. Sounding like a muted viola, I have to admit I did cringe slightly at the way the bow was handled and used (I can’t imagine doing that with my cello bow!). But there was that twang, that twinge in the sound generated from this slight wooden instrument – and it pulled on my heart strings a little too hard, making me yearn for a country for which I do not really have the right to call home.

I think what I loved the most about these two performers was the ability for the orchestra, piled full of Western-made instruments, to produce a sound I would call traditionally Chinese. Of course, all the accidentals and quirky key changes do tend to help, but I was simply delighted with the selection of pieces, and the way in which they were performed.

Yingdi Sun was superb in his performance of Lizst’s Totentanz, and I don’t think I can say any more about it other than the fact that it was fast, furious, made me want to play piano again, after listening to some more Lizst. Finally, we come to the cello concerto. I’m not the biggest fan of dissonance, which automatically means I tend to have fairly strong opinions about twentieth century music, and I understand that the piece wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. All the same, as a cellist, I was in awe of Li-Wei Qin’s technique – all that thumb work up in first position! all of those harmonics right down on the fingerboard that were absolutely perfect! those double stops in all different positions!

It’s probably not an exaggeration to say I spent most of my formative years in an orchestra – whether it be for school, or in QYO. It helped me with my stage fright, and it was a good way to get me to put down whichever book I was reading at the time and to talk to and socialise with other kids. I’ve been in quartets, cameratas, and chamber ensembles as well, but there’s nothing quite like being part of a full symphony orchestra. I can say with certainty that my life would be drastically different if I hadn’t picked up the cello. I’ve met so many tremendously talented people, some of them who have gone on to do amazing things with their music, and sometimes I do wish I hadn’t stopped playing and practising (even though I knew it was the right thing to do at the time).

Going to a concert like this simply serves to reinforce such thoughts. I believe my exposure to classical music from a very young age has had a huge impact on my life, even down to the way in which I like to write. It’s really very hard to explain, but music, when done right, is magic (this goes for music in all genres). And there is something very special about being part of an orchestra. There is an implicit trust between you and your desk partner, embellished by knowing looks and shy giggles, or sometimes even by the strange pencil markings that have appeared on your score. And music camps – they were the best. Even when we had to do strange calisthentics workshops where we walked like crazy people to the main theme of Pictures at an Exhibition while our conductor laughed. Tours weren’t too bad either – I have fond memories of practising in a school hall and Sergei freaking out because a couple of pigeons had managed to make their way inside and were flying around without a care in the world.

In any case, I digress. I will be attending many, many orchestral concerts this year, and this was a great way to kickstart the season.

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