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Review: Sound of Dragon Ensemble (Ding Yi Chinese Chamber Music Festival 2019)

Western composition meets Eastern arrangement.

Hailing all the way from Canada, the Sound of Dragon Ensemble comprises some of Vancouver’s very best musicians with a spectacular repertoire of works at their fingertips. As the opening act of Ding Yi Music Company’s 4th edition of the annual Chinese Chamber Music Festival, the ensemble was led by Taiwanese conductor Chen Chih-Sheng, and stand out from the crowd as a Western group performing mostly Western composed works for Chinese instrumentation.

The performance opened with Itamar Erez’s Migrant Voices, inspired by Italo Calvino’s seminal work Invisible Cities. Beginning with a tune on the guitar, the melody from the erhu joins in slowly as we ease into the ever changing tons of the song. We get a keen sense of rhythm from the plucking of the cello, establishing the underlying beats of the piece. It’s almost as if we can hear the different ‘voices’ with the many layers to this composition, representing the various races, sounds and people making up the migrant population. Later in the piece, the music eventually comes together, as if those same voices have united, and an unmistakable sense of joy follows.

In the second piece, Shan Ju Qiu Ming, composed by Mark Armanini (who has been involved with Chinese music for over 20 years), the philosophical piece imagines a subject passing through the mountains on an autumn evening. This is brought to life with the dizi and flute giving the piece an airy feel, with the singing (lyrics by Wong Wei) reflective, soothing and ponderous.

With Dorothy Chang’s lighthearted Timekeepers, like its title suggests, timing is everything, with the clashing melodies of the piece requiring precise rhythm as each musician keeps to their own melodies throughout. It’s fascinating to hear the ever-changing landscape of sound as it goes from distorted to interrupted and even layered with other instruments, bringing us on a truly quirky sonic journey with each instrument in the ensemble.

With Sam Mikulewicz’s Himawari, translating to sunflower in Japanese, one can almost imagine a field of sunflowers before us, as the dizi comes in and plays the upper melody, Japanese-like. Nicole Ge Li, on the erhu, then comes in to play the upper melody, causing it to rise, as if it were a sunflower standing tall and proud. Towards the end of the piece, the entire orchestra comes together in celebration as the song reaches its climax. The field is now complete, and the dizi comes in, twittering like a group of birds, and at last, we reach a place of peace and serenity.

In Iranian composer Ali Razmi’s Crossover, it feels as if we are walking  through a busy marketplace, coming into contact with various cultures and people yet able to fully understand each and every one of them with the universal language of music. With the flute played by Mark McGregor, we feel the majestic, mystic energy of the piece come out. We reach a crescendo of sound towards the end of the piece, as if we’ve attained a certain relationship with the world and universe around us. 

In Lan Tung’s Oriole, the piece takes inspiration from 1930s film soundtracks, taking the form of a 1948 Chinese pop song and tribute to Indian fusion band Shakti. With plenty of opportunities for improvisation from each individual instrument, it’s a piece that lends itself a chance for the ensemble to really show what each member is capable of. The ensemble has great chemistry here, looking at each other for communication, and certainly, have great understanding of each other. 

In Li Nixia’s Summer Song, Ding Yi Music Company joins in to perform, with a guzheng leading the upper melody while the other string instruments provide the underlying melody of the piece. In essence, it’s a piece that requires plenty of communication between orchestras, and percussion from both sides take turns to lead each section and good partnership between them both.

With an additional encore song, both orchestras ended up playing familiar classic Hua Hao Yue Yuan Ye (花好月圆夜), in celebration of the Mid-Autumn Festival. Bringing both ensembles together with this atmosphere of fun and familiarity and having the audience enraptured by the sound truly encapsulates what Ding Yi’s Chinese Music Festival is all about – an intercultural celebration and showcase of the Chinese music scene and Chinese music ensembles, proving how good music brings people together.

Ding Yi Chinese Music Festival 2019 ran from 13th to 15th September 2019 at the Esplanade Recital Studio. 

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