The audience were seated under the red glow of prosperity from the Chinese lanterns in the intimate choir stands under the magnificent Organ pipes at the back of the Concert Hall stage. Two opposing kidney-shaped grand pianos were nestled within one another for each pianist, representative of the Chinese Yin-Yang symbol, whilst the Southern Cross Soloists and guests were dressed in black and red to celebrate the onset of the Year of the Pig and the Chinese Lunar New Year.
Li-Wei Qin at rehearsals. Photo © Stephen Henry Photography
Lunar New Year: Memories from Childhood is the first of the three-concert program for 2019 by the Southern Cross Soloists. Curated by Artistic Director Tania Frazer, who brought all the artists together, it was an eclectic fusion, featuring animal-inspired Western music with selections from Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, Chinese folk songs, and the world premiere of Carnival of the Chinese Animals, a piece by Lyle Chan exploring the Chinese Zodiac. Special guest soloists included Li-Wei Qin on the cello, pianist Kristian Chong and the vibrant international erhu master (playing the two-stringed bowed traditional Chinese instrument) George Gao on his inaugural visit to Australia. This daring program of Chinese folksongs interspersed with Carnival of the Animals in the first half was exciting and delightful, blending two contrasting cultures to create a unique and exhilarating concert.
Each guest shared their personal childhood memories of Lunar New Year celebrations. Gao, a professor at the Shanghai Institute of Arts, remembered mischievously throwing firecrackers in the Shanghai streets. Qin meanwhile fondly remembered negotiating with his father that the first day of New Year and his birthday would be his only days free from cello practice. Chong, ABC ABC presenter and one of Australia’s leading pianists, always gleefully anticipated the red envelopes containing gifts of money when growing up in Adelaide.
George Gao at rehearsals. Photo © Stephen Henry Photography
Gao’s effervescent performance of Erhu of the Night used contemporary erhu techniques to recreate the famous Queen of the Night Aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute. His Mongolian Fantasy was a fast-paced James Bond-style theme played mostly between the erhu and cello with a frenetic climax and ending with a loud foot stamp. Intermingled between the Chinese folk songs and Gao’s unique compositions were the animal themes from Carnival of the Animals and Paganini’s Mosè Fantasia which created a vibrant and colourful melodic combination highlighting the diversity of eastern and western music.
Another highlight was the world premiere of Chan’s Carnival of the Chinese Animals, narrated by Brisbane-born comedian, actor and director Jordan Schulte. Inspired by Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, the piece was composed specifically for the concert. It tells the Chinese folk tale of how each animal was placed by Buddha in their positions of the zodiac based on a race between the animals to cross a river. The intelligent, yet cunning rat came first by hitching a ride on the oxen’s back and pushing the cat into the water, whereas the pig was last as it ate and napped before wading across the river. 2019 is the celebration of the year of the Pig which fortunately represents good luck, health and prosperity, rather than slovenly laziness.
Kristian Chong at rehearsals. Photo © Stephen Henry Photography
After such an incredible collection of compositions, the finale highlighting excerpts of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite seemed an unnecessary afterthought and without the might of a large orchestra and percussion section, did not do the work justice. That aside, the Southern Cross Soloists presented a sensational, energetic concert showcasing the diversity of musical styles from the Orient and Europe interspersed with poignant childhood memories of the Lunar New Year celebrations.
Southern Cross Soloists’ Lunar New Year: Memories from Childhood plays Melbourne Recital Centre on February 19