Exploring the Chinese New Year Repertoire

29 Jan 2019
  • Behind the Scenes
by Paola Niscioli
Exploring the Chinese New Year Repertoire

On Sunday 10 February, Adelaide Symphony Orchestra in conjunction with the Adelaide Festival Centre will perform a variety of music from both Eastern and Western classical worlds to celebrate the Year of the Pig.

We invite you to explore not only the origin and meaning behind music you might already be familiar with, but take a journey with us through new music and composers as well, expanding your musical horizons in the process. So much music still waits to be discovered!

We have also prepared a playlist for you to familiarise yourself with the music we will be performing, listen on Spotify here.

Delight in the beautiful melding of cultural traditions as we continue the tradition of a symphonic tribute to the Chinese New Year here in Adelaide – get your tickets here.

Li – Spring Festival Overture 

This movement was originally the opening for Li Huanzhi’s Spring Festival Suite, but has become widely known as a standalone work, and greatly resembles folk-infused pieces by Dvořák in both mood and effect. “Spring Festival” is the term used in China for what Westerners call “Lunar New Year” or “Chinese New Year,” as it marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring!

Strauss – Overture from Die Fledermaus 

Strauss’ most famous operatta, Die Fledermaus translates literally as “The Bat”. It is completely farcical and frivolous, with polkas and waltzes spill effortlessly one after another. Brahms, on hearing the show for the first time, is said to have remarked, “Now there is a master of the orchestra!”

Just as Messiah is synonymous with Christmas, Die Fledermaus has become irrevocably associated with New Year’s Eve – hence its inclusion in our Lunar New Year program.

Traditional Arr. Wang – The Brilliant Red Shandandan Flowers 

This song is as beautiful as the red flowers themselves. Rich harmonies transport the listener to the hillsides of Shanxi Province, home to the bright red blossoms. This traditional folk song, inspired by the legend, originated in Shaanxi and can be sung by nearly every adult in the country. A popular version of the song commemorates the Red Army’s successful arrival in Shaanxi, where the sight of the flowers in bloom inspired the army to continue its journey.

Long – The Rhyme of Taigu 

A teenager during the Cultural Revolution in China, the composer was sent to work on a state-run farm for five years as a manual labourer. Assigned to musical duties after sustaining a back injury, an interest in the synthesis of Eastern and Western aesthetic concepts was sparked. Inspired by historic ritual music from the Ming dynasty Zhihua Temple in Beijing, percussion plays a key role in The Rhyme of Taigu and provides an aggressive drive throughout the whole work.

Tchaikovsky – Variations on a Rococo Theme Op. 33 

It is not unusual for composers to write variations of a theme or popular melody written by someone else – for instance, Beethoven wrote variations for the piano on Rule Britannia and God Save the King. What does make this one unusual, however, is that theme of the Variations on a Rococo Theme is not a real Rococo melody nor the work of another composer, but a theme imagined by Tchaikovsky in an old style.

Borodin – In the Steppes of Central Asia 

This ‘symphonic poem’ was written for the Silver Jubilee of Alexander II of Russian in 1880, intended to be the soundtrack to a tableau vivant. You’d be forgiven for not knowing what this largely forgotten, yet slightly curious art form is – imagine a 19th century ‘mannequin challenge’. Actors would pose, motionless in a set and often lit to resemble a painting. This particular tableau vivant, which was to honour the Russian Tsars 25th year of reign, never went ahead after Alexander II was assassinated.

Liu Arr. Mao – Dance of the Yao Tribe 

One of the best known and most popular Chinese instrumental compositions of the 20th century, Dance of the Yao Tribe is inspired by the long drum dance, a form of traditional festival music on the Yao people of southern and southwest China. It might sound vaguely familiar even if you’ve never heard it – the opening notes of the 1998 song ‘When You Believe’, recorded by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, are based on the music of Dance of the Yao Tribe.

Chen – Selections from The Butterfly Lovers 

This piece is based on the well-known legend of the Butterfly Lovers, which follows the Zhu, the daughter of a rich landowner as she disguises herself as a boy and sets off from her home village to study. She forms a strong friendship with a fellow student, Liang, and after three years, returns home to her family and is promised in marriage to the son of a wealthy family. When this is discovered by Liang, he dies of a broken heart.  Zhu visits his tomb before she is married, and as a storm erupts, she jumps into his open grave and the two of them emerge as butterflies as the storm subsides, never to be parted.

Saint-Saëns – Finale from Symphony No.3 in C minor Op.78, ‘Organ’

You might recognise part of this tune, as it was adapted and turned into the 1977 pop song “If I Had Words” by Scott Fitzgerald and Yvonne Keele, which was later used in the 1995 film, Babe. It is also used as the national anthem of the micro-nation of Atlantium (a self-titled state in NSW), however this is probably not where you’d recognise it from.

The composer had this to say about the piece: “I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again.” He himself conducted the premier performance in London, at a concert where also performed as the soloist in his Piano Concerto No. 4 in C Minor. 

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Recording courtesy of ABC Classic

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