East Wind IV: ALL THINGS IN HARMONY (Guest Post)

East Wind IV: ALL THINGS IN HARMONY (Guest Post)
Juliet Petrus, photo © Andreas Grieger

A guest post by Mirka Zemanová


The above is the title of the concert which will be given at St John's Smith Square, London, SW1P 3HA, on 10 February 2024 at 7:00 p.m., to celebrate the Chinese New Year.  Among the participants are various Chinese musicians, as well as those of other nationalities who are interested in performing and promoting music by Chinese composers (including those writing in Western classical style). Most of the composers on the programme will, with a few exceptions, be contemporary ones - many with impressive credentials.

They include Zhou Long and Chen Yi (a married couple): Zhou Long won a Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2011, and Chen Yi  has won awards from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation and American Academy of Arts and Letters (Lieberson Award), as well as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.  Sam Wu is an up and coming composer whose works have been played on all five continents, most notably with the orchestras of Philadelphia, New Jersey, Minnesota, Sarasota, Melbourne, Tasmania, and Shanghai, the New York City Ballet, The Kennedy Center, National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing, Sydney International Piano Competition, the Lontano, Parker, Argus, ETHEL and Icarus Quartets, as well as performed by conductors Osmo Vänskä, Case Scaglione, and Benjamin Northey, violinist Johan Dalene, and sheng virtuoso Wu Wei.  Kui Dong‘s music has been performed and commissioned by numerous ensembles and has received honors and prizes from a wide spectrum of prestigious institutions, including Opera America, the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation in the Library of Congress, the Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard University, Meet the Composer, the USA Commissioning Award, ISCM, ASCAP, Austria’s Ars Electronica, the Tanglewood Music Center and Festival, the Spoleto Festival USA, the Arditti Quartet, Del Sol Quartet, Volti, San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, Alea III, Third Coast Percussion, Slagwerkgroep Den Haag, Spain’s Tenerife Symphony Orchestra, Japan’s Public Interest Incorporated Foundation and Fukuyama Arts Foundation, Hong Kong-based Phoenix Television, the Central Ballet Group of China and The Orchestra and Chorus of the National Performing Art Center of China.

The large list of performers at the 10 February concert, introducing the Year of the Dragon, includes ten instrumentalists (including those playing the traditional Chinese instruments guzhengbamboo flute and konghou), thirteen singers and a conductor:

Adrian, Yuzhe Wang (王禹哲) 


Jiaxin Yang (杨佳欣) 


Molin Han (韩墨琳) 


Yuxuan Lu (卢昱璇) 


Lan Hu (胡兰) 


Feilin Liu (劉霏琳) 


Kang Yang (杨康) 


Daniel Lei


Xuandi Zhang (张暄笛) 


Fushuang Xu (徐富霜) 


Kezia Robson


Ching Man Mandy Liu


Helen Lacey


Gu Jia Hang (顾嘉航)


Alexandra Meier


Hannah Bennett


Yixuan Qian (钱亦萱) 


Salome Siu


Valerie Wong (王怡詠) 


Juliet Petrus (朱丽叶) 


Heming Li (李鹤鸣) 


Yingtong Guo (郭映彤) 


Masimba Ushe


Panaretos Kyriatzidis


For further details, please see https://www.sjss.org.uk/events/east-wind-iv-all-things-harmony

The wonderful title East Wind will also be the name of the not-for-profit/charity organization that the Chinese mezzosoprano Yixuan Qian and the coloratura soprano, violist, author and educator Juliet Petrus will be founding in the UK later this year.  Yixuan Qian had been using this name for all of the preceding concerts focussed on Chinese music that she promoted; the theme of East Wind I was 'Spring Breeze', the theme of East Wind II  'Hearts are Racing and Taking Flight', and that of East Wind III was 'Singing Chinese History'.

Yixuan and Juliet (who is a fluent Mandarin speaker and a sought-after performer of both standard and contemporary Chinese vocal repertoire, and also performs a wide range of Western repertoire) only met in the spring 2023 through a mutual friend.   However, as Juliet has told me recently, "we immediately connected over mutual love of Chinese music and our desire to educate audiences about it; we try to connect two cultures that we both love very much."

Several of the performers at the St John's Smith Square concert have already participated at East Wind III concert, given at St James's Church, Sussex Gardens last September (the first in the series Juliet had helped to organize).  It was also the first concert which allowed me to enter the enchanting soundworld of classical music written by Chinese composers.  It is the soundworld like no other I have experienced previously: the equisite melodic lines and delicate harmonies of many works performed at that concert were different from the soundworld of Western composers of the same eras, yet their influence could have been discerned in the works.  Chinese art song is only about 100 years old but it is clear, even on first listening, that there must be many gems. 

A great deal of thought and work must have gone into the preparation of that concert - it was very well structured, the translations were good (as far as I can judge, having no Chinese at all), and all performances were of a high standard.  I liked all the sopranos, and in the first half of the programme particularly liked Kezia Robson (in the second half, she was at her best in the latter part of the coloratura section of her song). The mezzo-soprano Yixuan Qian is a real talent, and the voice of the countertenor Songxu Li is extraordinary (his chest register sounded quite low for a countertenor). 

The Latvian tenor Martins Smauksteils was also very good - his mellow voice has a lovely colour.  And although at first I wondered a little about the baritone, Fabian Tindale Geere, it soon became apparent that his voice is much bigger than I thought initially, and it does have a very pleasant colour.  Perhaps he just needs to take greater care of the differences in dynamics.  I'm sure he excels in early music, but he should also be capable of tackling many operatic roles.

No doubt all the performers will make good careers, including the pianist Hanzhi Zhang.  It was great to start and end the programme with the fairly fast-paced song Mayila (a Chinese folk song from the Kazakh ethnic minority group within China); for the final encore, the touching "Jasmine Flower", the performers were joined by women from a Chinese community choir which meets online and whose singers come from all over the UK.   I hear it is very frequent in China to have guests at a concert and invite the audience to sing. 

Juliet Petrus was pretty much a perfect performer.  Each song has been worked out to the smallest detail, and I liked the fact that her occasional gestures were tasteful and well suited to the chamber-like atmosphere of the concert.  Among the art songs she sang I particularly liked "Spring Nostalgia" by Huang Zi, written in 1932.

My only suggestion would be, in subsequent programmes, to juxtapose Chinese art song based on Chinese poetry with more material from Western classical music repertoire.  It was very good to hear some American songs based on Chinese poems but there must be plenty of European composers who have also been enchanted by Chinese poetry.  I have not researched this subject but there must surely be quite a few German and French songs set to ancient Chinese texts, and indeed composers of various other nationalities must have written art songs based on Chinese themes - for example, 20th century Czech composers such as Pavel Haas have written songs to ancient Chinese poetry.  

To include such music in the programmes would show how much this poetry has always been admired in Europe.  It would also provide more variety of mood and tempo, and the juxtaposition would surely show exceptional Chinese art songs in a new light. 

Although some pieces in the programme were exquisite, with beautiful  melodies and intricate harmony, most songs seemed to be in a fairly slow tempo, however, and rather melancholy in mood.  The Chinese members of the audience probably knew many of the texts, and were familiar with the mood of this poetry.  I'm always interested in new repertoire, and I think I do understand the feeling of "longing" and "yearning" in Chinese poetry, and of course Chinese composers of different eras wanted to convey these emotions in their rendering of the texts.  Still, perhaps the Chinese members of the audience had the advantage of being, on the whole, more familiar with the overall mood of this repertoire than the Westerners like myself. 

Finally, I would have also welcomed some information in the programme brochure about the 20th century Chinese composers - dates of birth, with whom they studied, where and why etc.  Juliet Petrus has told me that more information about the composers will be available in the programme notes of the St John's Smith Square concert. 

I very much look forward to discovering contemporary Chinese works which will be performed at the forthcoming concert at St John's Smith Square on 10 February.