Ex Mongolia raro aliquid novi

A LUNAR NEW YEAR CELEBRATION

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Wednesday February 13

                                                               Tan Dun 

For this year’s Chinese New Year concert, conductor/composer Tan Dun and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra gave up dickering around with single imported soloists and brought in a complete band: Hanggai, the Mongolian-based (well, partly) rock group that has made a cultural living by adapting folk-songs from the mother-country, singing them in Mongolian or Mandarin, and for this occasion taking a back row at the (elevated) rear of the MSO under Tan, supported in their work with lushly scored accompaniments.

Despite the attributions of some Hanggai numbers to specific composers and lyrics-writers, everything we heard sounded like folk music, although you’d hope that the original tunes had been ironed out into orthodox bar-lengths and contours. It all sounded pretty Westernized and aimed at slotting into Occidental norms, which was a pity but par for the course. One of my saddest memories is of the result yielded after I’d asked a group of Russian/Polish friends to sing that song In the field stood a birch tree used by Tchaikovsky in the finale of his Symphony No. 4; they weren’t particularly excited to give it an airing but, when they did, the ending of all lines had been added to, making the melodic shapes four-square and, compared to Tchaikovsky’s slight abridgements (two beats silence at the end of each line), prosaic.  Who was right? I’m hoping it was Tchaikovsky.

On this night, I heard about nine extracts from Hanggai’s collected works, all of them coming from CDs recorded between 2007 and last year.   All but two – the group’s hit Drinking Song and (I think) the Lullaby for Borulai – involved MSO backing that in some cases proved substantial, almost drowning out the visitors – except for their indefatigable drum-kit player Zhengha Yang cocooned in his own plastic-surrounded cell.  I’m assuming that Tan Dun supplied the arrangements; not that I’m an expert but the orchestration proved continuously clever and loaded with colours that spruced up the original melodies.

I believe the same thing can be seen in British folk music where less scrupulous interpreters and arrangers have bowdlerized the originals to make the products more easy for the general public to imbibe.  But against that, you have the shining beacon of Bartok who could do the popular thing (Romanian Folk Dances, anyone?) but who paid many European countries’ music a mighty service by transcribing it with searing accuracy and infusing it into his own musical processes with no intention of sugaring the pill.

The Bartok treatment didn’t apply to these Mongolian folk tunes. As you’d expect, they have been put into an acceptable rock-band garb, complete with inexorable regular syncopations and a harmonic scheme that would have astonished Cimarosa with its obtuseness.  The singers – Yiliqi, Daorina, Batubagen – spent most of the night yelling, using a head voice and disdaining to employ their diaphragms; what need, when you’re amplified, to learn how to sing properly?  Further to this, we were assured in much promotional material that the group had its genesis when one of the foundation members got tired of your garden variety rock and decided to learn throat-singing in an effort to go back to part of his country’s national music roots.  Well, we heard precious little of that on this evening; something like it occurred during the ensemble’s last bracket, beginning with Samsara, but, if you’ve heard Tibetan monks at their devotions, this was a pallid reflection of the real thing.

Hanggai struck me as part of the international brotherhood of rough rock and roll; not personally aggressive enough to take on the punk mantle, from which school some of the members sprang, but assuming certain touches in their presentation intended to add to the ensemble’s carefully prepared ‘untamed’ character.

Throughout the night, films were screened behind the players, most to do with Mongolia and showing images of the country as they might be displayed in a travelogue: sweeping steppes, undulating vales of green grass, endless shots of horses running wild or being driven or simply being ridden.  Nothing amiss with this; Tan is a top name among film composers and a fair few of his past New Year concerts have been played with a film component.

Even for his new Contrabass Concerto: Wolf Totem, with MSO principal Steve Reeves as soloist, Tan screened three extended sequences showing scenes of lupine life: roving on the open range with the pack(s); attempts by the wolves to raid a team of horses at night; finally, men hunting (and killing) wolves.   All this while Reeves outlined the composer’s taxing solo line with a goodly amount of high work on the G string, including notes well above the end of the fingerboard.   Unfortunately, Reeves met with several pitch problems that sounded out all too clearly as Tan allowed him plenty of exposure, including a flashy cadenza.

In this work also the melodic elements turned towards folk-inflected lyricism, bedizened with atmospheric textures for both soloist and orchestra.  The composer wears his emotions openly and both this concerto’s formal characteristics and its scintillating surface combine to make an immediately attractive construct, the score packed with action and – for the most part – an excellent aural illustration of the film.

The night’s only other serious music, also by Tan, was Passacaglia: Secret of Wind and Birds, which involved a bit of audience participation that I mentally pooh-poohed before the performance but which turned out to be close to magical.  For this, the composer had asked audience members to download an app to be played from their cellphones during the work’s progress.  As it turned out, the pre-recorded mass sound came at the start when the composer pointed to various points of the hall to activate their 52 seconds of sound – a mass of bird chirps, which slowly moved across the hall from left to right – then starting the MSO on its way through the new score which brought fresh textures and sonic surprises at every turn, including brass outbursts of biting intensity, string layering, the orchestra turning on their own bird-sound apps, all the while bringing us back to the ground bass being jockeyed round the orchestra.

I wasn’t sure about the film accompanying this work.  Abandoning the wild-life scheme, here the backdrop consisted of Chinese ideograms/letters juxtaposed with and superimposed by and on what looked like ancient Chinese symbols and letters.  Still, by this stage I was glad to be spared the endless clips of horse hordes, even some welcome still lives of sheep and cattle that illustrated Grassland My Beautiful Home; it meant that your visual incomprehension generated a fall-back in your attention to what was going on with the musicians.

Both concerto and passacaglia were received with clear approbation by a well-populated hall, which also reacted with enthusiasm to each of the Hanggai offerings including Horse of Colours with its appropriate galloping pace, The Transistor Made in Shanghai for that essential touch of contemporary humour, the afore-mentioned Grassland My Beautiful Home which bore unmistakable reference to country-and-western influences, an unscheduled airing of Uruumdush, and a Swan Geese finale with a mesmerising film of wild bird flights in convoy.

After a good many years’ exposure to attempted fusions of popular music performers with orchestras, I have to confess that the experiences haven’t generated great enthusiasm on my part.  The trouble is worsened when it comes to rock-and-roll because it is essentially a retrogressive form of music.  Given the freedom to break boundaries and forge new paths, rock settled into a behavioural groove compared to which New Orleans jazz is a maelstrom of creativity.   Electronic instruments with incredible potential have never been exploited, possibly because of the dearth of trained musicians in rock-and-roll ranks, possibly because popular determinations stamped out all attempts at real creativity (Frank Zappa, Hendrix, even Carlos Santana) so that today’s scene is packed with self-indulgent mediocrities whose points of difference are sub-atomic.

Hanggai, from a distance (as they were on this night), are unremarkable.  Their frequent appearances on the film stock being unwound before us showed a tendency to see themselves (or allow themselves to be presented) as rebels, isolated heroes, a posse that might have escaped from the set of a spaghetti western, dogged forward-striding figures that recall ageing images of Deep Purple or the Rolling Stones – anything, in fact, except musicians.   Their material is basically sweet and wistful, but they drag it screaming along a predictable furrow.   Nevertheless, I’m very thankful to Tan Dun for making the process of experiencing their work a great deal less harrowing than it could have been.