Concert review: Of secret songs of Chinese women, and musical emancipation of women

The Chinese composer-conductor Tan Dun is arguably the most visible ambassador of Chinese music and arts to the Western-oriented world today. As a composer of Chinese music, he is what Bartok meant for Hungarian music, Ives for Americana and Villa-Lobos for Brasileira. As China opens itself to the world, the living cultures and histories of her people become better known to outsiders, and it is not just about martial arts, Marco Polo, Shih Huangti and tea.

Of course, all those have already been covered in various well-publicised works by Tan. Nu Shu - showcased at the Huayi Chinese Festival of Arts 2015 - is something far more private and intimate.

Subtitled The Secret Songs Of Women, Symphony for 13 Microfilms, Harp and Orchestra, the 40-minute-work performed by the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra yesterday at the Esplanade Concert Hall, is a documentary about the bonds that unite women in a male-dominated culture. Mothers, daughters and sisters are the living links in a secret language transmitted via oral tradition, songs and calligraphy.

The setting is a village in Jiangyong county in Hunan province, where this arcane language still lives, albeit tenuously. Although Chen Yuying's harp is the virtuoso protagonist, both she and the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra play counterpoint to the real heroines, eight women caught in film for this synthesis of visual and musical journalism.

A mother sings life's wisdoms to her daughter. Another woman sings about sisterhood. Four women sing as a bride is readied for her wedding. Matrimonial ritual crying and tear-soaked scarves are as much part of this culture as a woman longing for her late grandmother in her spartan abode, caught in a 360-degree pan by the camera.

Their voices and songs are recorded verbatim and unrehearsed, and in one instance The Book Of Tears, octagenarian Mo Cuifeng hesitates, coughs and cries with each recounting of her fading memories. Accompanying bass clarinet, cor anglais and trombones combine to make this a poignant and unforgettable moment.

Not every chapter is gloomy; there is a recurring theme resembling one that appears in Bruch's First Violin Concerto and Richard Strauss' Alpine Symphony. There is also an ongoing thread that involves water, in this case tears, lakes and the river, as a life-sustaining source. The final apotheosis is a dreamt one, of the eight women frolicking in the river, a symbolism of hope for the future. Women are the pillars of families; their tears of sorrow and happiness will never be in vain.

The first half of the evening was a standard concert, beginning with Li Huanzhi's Spring Festival Overture. Huqin virtuoso Zhao Lei starred in Zhao Jiping's Grand Mansion Gate while guzheng exponent Yuan Li did the honours for Guan Xia's Hua Mulan. Both were offered substantial encore time to further parade their skills. Liu Yuan's Train Toccata was another showpiece for the train music collection (joining the likes of Honegger, Villa-Lobos and Johann Strauss), performed with requisite aplomb.

As if symbolic of the emancipation of women in music, the men of the orchestra were attired in all black while the women were allowed to wear whatever they fancied.