In honour of the Lantern Festival – the 15th day of the first lunar month and the first significant feast after Chinese New Year – Tan Dun joined the Sydney Symphony Orchestra for a celebration of Chinese music and culture, Music under the Moon.

With a full moon beaming over the heat-wave stricken Sydney Harbour, the programme opened with 100 Birds Flying Towards the Phoenix, Guan Xia’s concerto for suona and orchestra, which had its premiere just last week with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The concerto is based on an old folk tune Xia heard as a child growing up in Henan province. It tells the story of the phoenix: a bird who would diligently save discarded fruits and nuts, becoming a hero in the bird world by generously sharing its hoard when drought struck.

The suona – a Chinese double-reed instrument, similar to an oboe, but shorter and with a wide, flared bell – is renowned for its ability to mimic bird calls and soloist Liu Wenwen (a 13th generation inheritor of the shona tradition) made full use of this in her brilliant, characterful performance. She produced wild, fluid slides and and an incredible array of bird calls in the driving first section of the concerto – the work is one movement but structured in the traditional slow-fast-slow format – as Dan led the orchestra with precise, athletic movements.

Though the sun has the penetrating power to dwarf the entire orchestra – the timbre is not unlike that of a bagpipe – Wenwen displayed a remarkable tonal and dynamic flexibility. She carried on an avian conversation with Emma Scholl’s flute in the more tranquil middle section of the concerto and traded melodies with the orchestra, mimicking water birds and a rooster. In the rollicking finale she produced wild, grating bird calls, echoed by the flutter tonguing winds. In her aggressive cadenza she sustained a piercing high note using circular breathing, drawing applause from the audience. While there is a dialogue between ensemble and soloist, it is really the suon part that comes to the fore, the orchestra very much in a supporting role.

Dun described Béla Bartók as a hero of his and the inclusion the Hungarian composer’s suite from The Miraculous Mandarin was a beautiful piece of programming. The muted brass in the Introduction recalled the plangent sound of the suon over the fierce frenzy of strings, while the narrative focus introduced in the concerto was extended through the scenes of Bartók’s ballet – not to mention the folk motifs and colourful percussion. It was here to that the orchestra came into its own with a tight, energetic performance. Stunning solos swept across the winds and brass – all the players in top form – but special mention should go to Frank Celata’s strange, haunting clarinet solo.

Bartók inspired, in part, Dun’s own work on the programme. Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women, a Symphony for 13 micro films, harp and orchestra, was inspired by Dun’s urge to help preserve and promote Nu Shu, an ancient syllabic script developed and passed down though generations by women in Hunan province. Dun researched the language and its music, capturing it on film. His audio-visual symphony – he described it has a 21st-century music drama – saw footage displayed above the orchestra on three banners representing the past, present and future (or grandmother, mother and daughter). The singing of the filmed women accompanied by the orchestra and harp soloist Louise Johnson.

The hum over lower strings, shot through with harmonics, opened the first movement, Secret Fan, as the shadow of a hand traced stunning Nu Shu calligraphy on the screens. Brittle, percussive harp notes interspersed with more melodic figures. Once again the orchestra took a backseat, providing an accompaniment to the film materials and soundtrack. The 13 movements each explored a different story or element of Nu Shu culture. Mother’s Song set a kind of women’s bible passed down from mother to daughter, while Dressing for the Wedding saw a 15 year old girl, expression passive, dressed for her wedding day, the basses brooding and ominous.

Cry-Singing for the Marriage called up a tradition that involves three days of crying – a scarf, gradually imbued with the tears of weeping mother and daughter stretched across the three screens. While some scenes were particularly effective, even disturbing, others were less so. A Road without End saw a women walking through stone alleyways, gradually crossing the three screens – a clichéd metaphor with none of the power of Grandmother’s Echo, in which the camera panned across the house of Gao Yinxian (one of the most significant women of the Nu Shu village) kept exactly as it was when she died, set against the hiss of scraping harp strings.

The work culminated in a bright, joyous movement, Living in the Dream – women washing clothes in the river, their splashing a dance-like percussion, echoed in the orchestra – an upbeat, celebratory finale, which saw Dun’s feat leap right off the podium.