The Yellow River Cantata’s iconic status was underlined yet again at Dewan Filharmonik Petronas.
If there is one orchestral composition the Chinese community can recognise, it’s got to be the classic Yellow River Cantata. The cantata – described as the most important and influential symphonic work — was composed in 1939 by Xian Xinghai, based on the patriotic poem Yellow River by Guang Weiran. It was inspired by the eponymous river and meant to eulogise the struggles of the people who lived on its shores, battling both the mighty waters and the Japanese in their daily struggle to survive.
Apparently, the Paris-trained young composer churned out this eight-movement choral piece known as a cantata, on a rough-hewn desk in a Yanan cave, in six days. Xian intended the work to be performed by the many choruses that had sprung up at the Communist base camp – so remote that it was accessible only by foot, mule, or airplane. The idealistic young people from around China who had flocked to Yanan to support the Communist cause frequently sang en masse to pass the time, boost morale, and foster a fighting spirit.
Last week, Malaysians got to sample Xian’s work in seven movements at the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas (DFP) in Kuala Lumpur.
The one-night sold out Yellow River Cantata performance by the Xiamen University Chorus and Symphony Orchestra was organised by Xiamen University and Malaysia-China Culture and Arts Association. It also marked the 40th anniversary of the Malaysia-China diplomatic relations and the establishment of the university’s first overseas campus in Malaysia.
The show was an addition attraction to DFP’s recently concluded season. The 100-member ensemble, under conductor Gui Wei, delighted with the new arrangement of the cantata, amidst a video projection of the raging river and lyrics of the poem in English surtitles flashing on a screen in the background.
As a prelude to the Yellow River Cantata, we were introduced to Ode To The Red Flag, an apt opening passage composed by Lu Qiming, with two anchors presenting the significance of the river, widely considered as mother river of the Chinese nation.
The cantata’s first movement, Song Of The Yellow River Boatmen, which began China’s chapter of civilisation, kicked of Xian’s masterpiece. The narrative elements came to life with baritone Zhang Yalun, who urged the boatmen to keep rowing to win the battle. Take care, don’t be lazy, strive hard and fear note, he seemed to cry out in his beautiful voice before he took on a calm approach after the storm. His powerful voice and clean diction humanised the choral movement.
Zhang has been praised by the late tenor Luciano Pavarotti as a “true Verdi baritone”, and he is equally adept in the music of Richard Wagner in international opera houses.
In Ode To The Yellow River, the vocal arrangement with sustained notes for the choir, created a spine-tingling evocation of vast distances in the rural landscape.
There was a strange mix of unusual colours and textures throughout the cantata. For example, the audience clearly loved Dialogue At The River Bank, which featured two tenors, Chen Yanfang and Liu Tao.
The movement began with a touch of percussion, and proceeded on to a full out medley. When the musical conversation began, the tenors took turns to speak of their longing for their hometowns. The images of the forces of nature raged in their minds, as they decide to fight their way home, battling the guerrillas and the mighty river.
Soprano soloist Wu Xiaolu was particularly impressive in the Yellow River Indignation, where she gave voice to a tormented character who sang of loss, rape, and the decision to drown herself in the Yellow River to reunite with her family. She sang with so much fervour, I could feel her anguish.
Xian (or the re-arranger) had incorporated some tricky contrapuntal passages for the chorus, and in several places, the text moves by speedily, but the ensemble did well to tackle these challenges.
For the finale, the symphony performed the poem Ode to Peace, which was originally written by Gao Zhanxiang and read aloud from the space travel of Shenzhou VI spacecraft. Mezzo soprano Feng Shuo delighted with her haunting voice.
To cap off the night, the youthful-looking Gui Wei whipped out his baton for a medley of local favourites, Chan Mali Chan and Rasa Sayang, before wrapping the performance up with a recognisable passage from the Yellow River Cantata.
The young ensemble showed plenty of talent, and are en-route to more tours around the world.