Qn: It's your second time conducting a Chinese ensemble.
Ans: Yes that's right. First time was with SCO, also in the chamber ensemble setting. It was during the SARS period when the guest conductor from Beijing was cancelled and the then GM was a very close friend of mine. He knew that I would not conduct Chinese Orchestra, simply because I do not know enough to conduct. There are two types of music I don't conduct, Chinese music, Chinese orchestral music, and symphonic band. Simply because well, I just don't think there is enough good music in symphonic band music, and Chinese music I feel, you need more in depth knowledge. But that particular concert was a modern work programme. I think, as far as I can remember, Chen Yi I think, maybe some Ye Xiao Gang, maybe Tan Dun. So I looked at the scores, it's actually not far from Chen Yi or Tan Dun writing for Western Symphony Orchestras, and that I'm familiar with, so I agreed, just to help my friend out, because either they cancel the concert or, you know, so I did it. It was the first time, and this is the second time.
Qn: And you mentioned you conducted an erhu concerto too?
Ans: Oh actually that, well, over my years with the SSO, I've had my fair share of doing Chinese instrumental concertos with Western Symphony Orchestras. Now that was the pre-SCO days, when SCO wasn't in its present form. Somehow the SSO artistic management seem to think that it is their responsibility to also embrace Chinese music. So yes, I have done Zhang Yan (張燕) Double Guzheng Concerto (雙箏協奏曲), I have done a suona concerto, I have done Ding Lu Feng (丁魯峰), I have done Jiang Jian Hua (姜建華). I've recorded with NAXOS CD with Li Min Xiong (李民雄) the percussionist. So that sort of thing with the symphony orchestra.
Qn: So how do you think conducting these Chinese music is different from the other things that you conduct?
Ans: It's different, I cannot really pinpoint. All I know is I am extremely conscious about intonation. There was once I did a yang ban xi zu qu (樣板戲組曲), can't remember now, "Bai Mao Nu" (白毛女)? There was a jinghu (京胡), and jinghu is never in tune, in the Western sense! In its own right, it's got to be "not in tune" to sound right! Oh, and I did with Yu Shun Fa (俞順發), actually we recorded two CDs, but unreleased, simply because the recording company had some problems and in the end was not released. So it's always, just the intonation part of it, it's either you accept it and say that since you accepted the format of ethnic instruments and symphony orchestra's tuning, you accept the combination of it, then you have to take it on. Of course, these sort of thing if you don't pay too much attention, it's not going to bother you. I have the suona experience which was very unique, because in those days in the 1980s, I can't really remember the suona solo's name now, they're all from China, but I seem to remember my colleagues in the SSO, those who came from China, they did not respect this player very much, "他是那種民間藝人" (he's just a street artist), but I suppose it is that, that brings out the flavour. And he was, I don't think he reads music, I don't think he follows what was on the score, because during the concert, I accidentally flipped one more page. Then I looked at it, no, he was not actually playing what was on the page, and it comes to a fermata, so I cut of the orchestra, and of course the orchestra was shocked, and he was shocked too. And I realised, ok, something must be wrong, I just flipped through and realised that ok, I've flipped one more page, so I go on again, I gave upbeat again and I go on, and he started again. It doesn't disturb him a bit and the orchestra was alert, as if nothing has happened. So sometimes I think, is it useful to read music? So those were my experience.
Qn: From a conductor's point of view of yesterday's concert, how do you find the composer's approach towards contemporary Chinese music?
Ans: Interestingly, I was rather excited about the whole programme by the time she came, after she managed to answer all the questions that we have. I think it was exciting because she has something to say in each of the three pieces. They are not always the same, what she wants to express. She has sufficient knowledge of how the instruments will sound, except that the notational purposes was not too obvious to us all. I'm not sure if you should classify them as contemporary Chinese music; I actually look at it from the other way round, it is a living composer, using a new set of instruments to achieve a soundscape, to weave a soundscape for herself, and that happens to be by using a Chinese music ensemble. Of course I think the aesthetic of it all, up to a point, is based on Chinese music, or the foundations of the aesthetics of Chinese music. She mentioned time and again about microtones which also exists in much earlier forms in Chinese music. And I thought the graphic score presented a unique opportunity for Ding Yi to push boundaries. Surely you noticed that each time you play, it was a little bit different. And that was the interesting part. Really, last night's performance, especially on that piece, it was really very good.
Qn: In what sense?
Ans: There is a real sense of performance, you don't have any music. You only have the graphic, and imagination and creativity were demonstrated by just about every player. It's a bigger dimension than in the rehearsals. And of course, she took it as a form of musical theatre, hence the masks and whatnot. Musical theatre is not new. You could even say that it is very traditional, and people like Tan Dun has already employed it and flourished with that concept. But I thought the masks is at once ethnic Chinese and at once international. The masks, the commedia dell'arte of the Italian Renaissance theatre, I thought it was really really good, that Ding Yi has had the far-sight of engaging this programme. I thought Ding Yi was also very generous in offering a young composer to do a concert like this, completely on one composer's work. But in the end I think it really was a win-win situation where the ensemble benefitted by having a bigger dimension of what she is, and I'm sure she will grow out of this experience as to what worked, and what didn't work. In fact I think Ding Yi is to be congratulated. This is probably the first concert of it's kind that is devoted to a single composer, of course I have to qualify this, that I don't know, but I think this probably is the first one.
Qn: Do you have any challenges as a conductor in conducting this set of pieces?
Ans: I have done quite a lot of new works, the reward of doing first performance of a work is that you see it slowly taking shape. And if the composer is around, through the rehearsals and discussions, you get to sometimes, be involved in making useful suggestions. But of course sometimes, that is not welcome, and that would be, in that sense, also pose as a challenge. Fortunately, Jean is very very flexible, so the whole process, the whole preparation period was quite easy in a sense. I had problems actually with balance, and that was to a certain extent, resolved by shifting the huqin to my right. The other challenges of course, they will always be there anyway, whether you do a modern work, a traditional work, standard repertoire. Intonation will always be a problem, even with very very good professional ensembles. We have had, even up to the performance, we were challenged by the ability to count. I believe the last piece was in a big mess, but a performance is a performance, things like that happen. You didn't realise that it will happen. Sometimes it is like suddenly you know that this is a very difficult corner to turn, and when somebody didn't turn right, or you didn't manage to help the turning, then of course the ensemble will be wrecked. Last night was, you didn't expect it, suddenly something happened. Last night, it was not messy because of the nature of the work, the texture, the layering itself, it is just that it was not accurate.
The rest of the interview has been fully transcribed and can be viewed here.
The rest of the interview has been fully transcribed and can be viewed here.