We went to China last weekend—and also to Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Tehran, Mongolia, Madras, two imaginary African locales, and the heart of the sun. I doubt I’m alone in feeling both jet-lagged and happy this Monday morning; the inaugural Sound of Dragon festival of Chinese music covered a lot more ground than was expected, and came off nearly without a hitch.
The only bad news? It’s not going to happen again in 2015. Speaking from the stage on Sunday afternoon, and citing her own need to make music, artistic director Lan Tung announced that the festival will return, but not for “two or three years”.
Some will argue that the event should run annually, and that’s a valid point: this inaugural version certainly attracted a lot of attention and generated an equal amount of goodwill. But Tung’s the boss, and it’s unlikely anyone else could bring equal focus and energy to the job.
The Taiwanese-born, Vancouver-based erhu player was also one of Sound of Dragon’s stars, performing in a variety of contexts and contributing several compositions, including one of the event’s strangest: a properly psychedelic arrangement of the Pink Floyd classic “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”. As performed by a six-piece subgroup of the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra, it featured a sitarlike drone from Ali Razmi’s tar and whispery vocals from Moshe Denburg and Amy Stephens, but the main attraction was Tung’s explosive solo on the Chinese violin. Imagine Jimi Hendrix if he’d grown up in Taipei rather than Seattle, and you’d get a good idea of just how provocative—and entertaining—this proved.
Also ubiquitous and innovative was Chih-Sheng Chen, the tiny but energetic conductor of Taiwan’s Little Giant Chinese Chamber Orchestra. Whether he was guesting with the full Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra on opening night, supervising various solo and small-group performances on Saturday afternoon, or fronting his own band that night, everything he was involved in met the very highest standards. Little Giant’s hourlong survey of contemporary Taiwanese music was a festival highlight, and although its individual musicians weren’t identified by name, the band’s dizi player deserves special praise. Rarely have such luxurious sounds come from a simple bamboo flute.
Space doesn’t permit much more than a brief survey of other high points, but Tung proved prescient when she flagged zheng legend Xiang Si-hua as one artist to watch out for. Now in her 70s, the longtime North Vancouver resident performs only rarely and kept her Sunday-afternoon recital to two pieces, “Mountain High River Flow” and “Dance of the Yi People”. On both, however, she displayed the kind of chiselled virtuosity that comes from understanding the virtues of space and silence. Some of the younger zheng players at the festival offered a more florid and physically active approach to the harplike instrument, but none were more emotionally compelling.
I could go on; this was a magnificent event. But let’s end by saying that the future of Chinese music in Vancouver looks assured, especially in its more adventurous manifestations. A pair of cross-cultural duos, in particular, stood out: Nicole Li and Corey Hamm’s Piano Erhu Project and the team of erhu player Rong Jun and harpist Lani Krantz both focused on music by contemporary Canadian composers, and both found a distinctive balance between 21st-century abstraction and the more lyrical approach of Chinese tradition.
Similar juxtapositions featured at almost every Sound of Dragon show, making for a consistently stimulating weekend—and underscoring the harmony that exists between Vancouver’s various ethnic groups, at least on the cultural level.