Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra | Auditorium Parco della Musica | 5 December, 2010

Yu Long conducting, with violinist Ning Feng, soprano Xu Xiaoying and baritone Yuan Chenye

The Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra, one of China's most important and critically respected orchestras, was in Rome yesterday, playing to a enthusiastic late afternoon audience in Santa Cecilia at the Auditorium Parco della Musica. The third appointment in the Italian leg of its current European tour, which also saw performances at Teatro La Fenice in Venice on 29 November and Teatro Verdi in Florence on the first of this month, the concert was one of the first in a series of events to mark the start of the Chinese Culture Year in Italy and the 40th anniversary of the establishment of Sino-Italian diplomatic ties on 6 November 1970.
Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra - Photo ©
The two halves of the concert were perfectly balanced between classical Western music and contemporary Chinese classical music. Violin virtuoso Ning Feng thrilled us with a display of not only technical brilliance, but pure passion, during Tchaikovsky's astoundingly difficult Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35. Concert protocol was thrown out of the window between movements and there was loud spontaneous applause from a sizeable portion of the public, which both conductor Yu Long and Ning Feng graciously acknowledged with a nod (and a refreshing lack of snobbery). As the closing notes of the third movement finished, the applause and cheers of bravo were thunderous, with Ning Feng called back on stage for a solo violin encore – a dazzling performance of Paganini 's Variations on God Save the King. As the winner of not only the first prize, but also two other special prizes at the 51st Paganini International Violin Competition in Genova several years ago, Paganini was the perfect way to end a faultless performance.

After a short break, the orchestra was back on stage, but there was no sense of the programme being merely rounded out, as is sometimes the case after a splendid soloist. Instead, in part two, the orchestra was joined by soprano Xu Xiaoying and baritone Yuan Chenye for a mesmerizing performance from both singers of The Song of the Earth, composed in 2005 by Ye Xiaogang, whose Starry Sky was played by Lang Lang at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. A Chinese version of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, The Song of the Earth takes the same Chinese poems by Li Bai that Mahler had used in German translation and instead uses them in their original Chinese language, also incorporating traditional Chinese instruments and the vocal sounds of Chinese opera into the score. I was, quite literally, enthralled by the crystalline beauty of Xu Xiaoying's voice and the warmth and expressiveness of Yuan Chenye's baritone.

After rapturous applause at the close of the piece, Yu Long signaled to somebody sitting in the audience, who turned out to be none other than composer Ye Xiaogang himself, who was called up on stage to take the final bows with the singers and the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra. A wonderful evening!