Tuesday 23 October 2018

Music for the Chinese New Year

Celebration: Pianist Lang Lang performs and five-year-old Li Muzi perform at the opening of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing
Celebration: Pianist Lang Lang performs and five-year-old Li Muzi perform at the opening of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing

George Hamilton

The arrival of the Winter Olympics in our living rooms on the weekend before the Chinese New Year is a potent reminder of the Summer Games which took place a decade ago in Beijing.

High in the city's Bird's Nest stadium, I had the pleasure of covering an opening ceremony that showcased ancient China as a counterpoint to the modern powerhouse it had become.

Acting as a bridge between the two halves of the show, played out in front of a full house of 91,000 under clear evening skies (guaranteed by cloud seeding that had the unfortunate consequence of flooding settlements 100 kilometres away in the days that followed) was a specially composed piano duet.

On the left, at the keyboard of the Heinztman concert grand - which subsequently sold for a then record price of $3.22m - sat Lang Lang, at the time 26, and already a superstar.

Alongside him was a little girl. Li Muzi was just five and had been learning to play for only a year. Between them, they held the audience spellbound.

Lang Lang - or Bang Bang, as he's known by those who find his somewhat aggressive style a touch disconcerting - was the first Chinese pianist to play with the world's leading orchestras.

He has presented his music to Heads of State, from Washington to London.

The multi-Grammy-award-winning Yo-Yo Ma blazed a trail, too. Born in Paris to Chinese parents - one a conductor, the other a singer - he grew up in the United States, where his talent shone through early.

As a child, he played for President John F Kennedy at the White House. The great conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein introduced him as "a seven-year-old Chinese cellist playing old French music for his new American compatriots".

Now he's China's most famous musician, one of the world's greatest classical virtuosi.

You could add the name of Ji Liu to this list. Still in his twenties, he's another Chinese pianist making an impact both on the stage and in the recording studio.

Xuefei Yang, no stranger to these parts, was the first guitarist from China to train at a conservatory.

She's a Fellow of the Royal Irish Academy of Music, and a regular at the National Concert Hall in Dublin.

In April, Xuefei will make her second visit to Earlsfort Terrace this year, presenting a programme of chamber music.

Next Friday marks the Chinese New Year, and as one who lives happily under the management of two Jack Russells, I'm delighted to note that this is the Year of the Dog.

Buildings across the capital will light up red to mark the occasion, and the 11th Dublin Chinese New Year Festival will begin.

Over 17 days, there's a panoply of events. One of those - Chinese Talent on the Rise - turns the spotlight once more on emerging, youthful virtuosity.

This lunchtime concert on Sunday, March 4, in the Hugh Lane Gallery on Parnell Square will feature three young Chinese musicians from Ireland who have each already made a significant impact.

Joe O'Grady was only five when he won his first piano competition. By the age of nine, he was playing in Carnegie Hall in New York. Still only 11, Liszt and Ravel will feature on his programme.

Sidi Bao, a 13-year-old violinist, made her Carnegie Hall debut last year. She'll feature a Chinese concerto, while Kildare-born pianist Aidan Chan, who's now 18 and a student at the Royal College of Music in London, will include the best-known piece of Chinese classical music, Ode to the Yellow River.

For the complete programme, go to www.dublinchinesenewyear.com.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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