Melbourne is as renowned for its cultural centres as it is for its sports precincts but for its fourth Chinese New Year concert, East Meets West, the audience was not only treated to exceptionally talented artists, it also boasted an unusual athleticism. Conducting a large orchestra like the Melbourne Symphony is a physical exercise at the best of times but the repertoire for this concert required an extreme vigour and many people had returned to see multi award-winning conductor, Tan Dun, in action for the third time. His expressive, outstretched hand movements pointed definitively around the orchestra, his feet often leaving the podium to land on the stage, and his energy was infectious.

Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance from El Amor Brujo was the perfect choice to set the scene for the night. A story of love and passion around a smouldering fire, it built to a crescendo of beating drums and sizzling violins to signal the demise of an evil spirit and a victory for the lovers with a resounding flourish.

In this Year of the Rooster, the Chinese story of 100 Birds Flying towards the Phoenix was recreated in Melbourne by Liu Wenwen, one of the most renowned Suona players in China, playing two different versions of the instrument, a tiny double-reeded horn. Originally from Arabia, the Suona has been used for festivals in China since the 16th century, while the story of China’s Phoenix (or Fenghuang) is over 8000 years old. Guan has put to music the story of a caring bird, which protected its fellows in difficult times and was rewarded with multi-coloured feathers.

There were bird sounds aplenty delivered by this elegant instrument, manipulated by Wenwen, immaculate in a white satin dress and appearing to hardly draw breath. The latest in a family of 13 generations of Suona players, she has performed with major orchestras around the world. The MSO deserves credit for its sensitive accompaniment, which allowed this beautiful young woman’s skill to shine.

Dun took his time to explain the next item on the programme, Farewell My Concubine, and his collaboration with renowned Peking Opera soprano, Xiao Di. Peking Opera emerged, he explained, to tell the story of a battle between two kingdoms hoping to claim China in 206 BC.

Like Shakespeare, he said, the story became classic study in schools where he first learned to play the Beijing fiddle, one of the principal instruments in the opera, along with the Erhu, drums and percussion. Farewell My Concubine is a familiar love story about the demise of the defeated King and his concubine. For Dun, the best instrument to represent the King was the grand piano, which was wheeled centre stage, to be played with deep feeling and the lightest of touch by Ralph van Raat, another musical athlete who at one stage climbed onto the stool to reach over and hit the lowest note.

When Xiao Di appeared as the concubine there were gasps from the audience. A vision in traditional Peking Opera dress, she wore a flowing cloak and headdress above her long black hair. Her exquisite hand movements and languid gestures over the piano demonstrated her love for her King, even though the spoken words and sounds were unfamiliar. Perhaps the reason why there were no English surtitles as in most major venues was because looking up may have taken our eyes away from her extraordinary juggling of two swords. The orchestra had a real workout as matters became faster and faster – percussion crashing, tuba thundering, trombones on fire, violins buzzing like bees – till the sad heroine dramatically drew the sword across her throat. I’m not sure whether it’s infra dig to stand and clap in the middle of a concert, but I swear many people were itching to do so.

An equally breathtaking performance, however, was still to come from China’s ‘Queen of Rock’, Tan Weiwei, presenting China’s version of Aboriginal Song Lines. Dun explained that in the speed of its development, the world was missing one tempo – “the vanishing of tradition, where we came from, and where we want to go!” In collaboration with Weiwei he had devised four movements to explore Song Lines in rural China.

It was a stunning performance by Weiwei, who was named Best Chinese Female Singer at the 4th Music Media Awards and who, like the other female performers, shared her enthusiasm with all of the audience. Respect for the earth, its wildlife and the sharing of love were preeminent in this concert, which concluded with Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, a work where respect and understanding between man and bird enables love to prevail.

A video at the start of the concert reminded us that this is ‘A Month of Giving’. The performances in this concert by Dun, the MSO, and the other artists will keep that generous spirit alive and well for far longer than a month.

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