REVIEW: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra – Tan Dun’s Martial Arts Trilogy (15/02/2013)


The NZSO has kicked off its past two seasons with a Chinese New Year inspired concert and this year was no exception. This year’s drawcard was exceptional – Tan Dun himself conducting his Martial Arts Trilogy: music from three movies he has scored being “Hero“, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “The Banquet“. Well-known to New Zealand audiences, this ensured a good turn out at the Civic Theatre of all ages and nationalities, some of whom were martial arts movie fans, others just here for the music.

The Trilogy itself is an assemblage of music from the movies and can really only be a taste or rememberance of them – the essential flavour of the story and its main characters are captured here but are no substitute for the whole thing. I don’t know whether this was truly understood by some in the audience. No matter, as essential as the music were the excerpts from the films projected on a screen behind the orchestra.

Hero” is an epic movie. The tale of three assassins after a King, it is full of drama, action and raw emotional power, all of which are captured in a challenging score. Up to the task were Japanese-American violinist Ryu Goto (Midori’s younger brother) and guxin soloist Zhao Xiaoxia. Goto, playing both a viola and a violin was as dramatic as the assassins on screen and Zhao’s glissandi and atmospheric playing provided contrasts and calm which captured attention, The longest piece of the three, its various movements didn’t lose focus. Focused too were the percussion section of the NZSO, all of whom were put to good use as ‘soldiers’ creating rhythm instrumentally and visually.

Of the three, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is the best known and the part of the programme that most people had come to hear. It certainly did not disappoint with the orchestra well drilled and some exceptional erhu playing from Tan Wei, definitely the highlight of the concert. While some might have missed the cello instead of the erhu, Tan’s playing added colour and character to the action on screen and was just as thrilling as the leaps and bounds in the film. A special mention too to NZSO percussion principal Leonard Sakofsky who, a bit like a wandering minstrel, carefully worked his way around the stage with a hand-drum accompanying Tan.

The Banquet” is apparently modeled on both Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ and Ibsen’s “Ghosts”. It has a high body count and perhaps I was thinking that the music would reflect that. It didn’t and perhaps that was Tan’s intent all along. It seemed more like the Warsaw Concerto at times which rather detracted from what was happening  on screen. That’s not a criticism of pianist Yingdi Sun’s playing which was fine, but compared to what had gone before, this seemed out of place. While not lacking for percussive drama at times, it lacked raw colour and an Asian / Chinese flavour so clear and present in the other two movements. Still, it was warmly received by the audience.

Overall, a successful concert and a good start to 2013. One niggling criticism which might have been deliberate – all the solo instruments were miked and amplified. This might have been to get a particular sound but the acoustic in the Civic is very dry. I’m not sure that it needed it.

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About TI

TI is based in Auckland, New Zealand. TI's somewhat eclectic interests include (but are certainly not limited to) legal humour (the law can be funny), good wine, the search for the best possible chocolate, alcoholic beverages, travel, commercial aircraft, photography, weird news stories and classical music.
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