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Li Biao Percussion Ensemble, Shenzhen Concert Hall

Source:Financial TimesRelease time:2013-04-08Views:
    Of the musical groupings that humourist Anna Russell once cheekily divided into “bang, scrape and blow instruments”, the “bang” instruments hold the most populist potential. In the right hands, their extroverted spirit and relatively uncivilised nature – at least as defined by a rarefied repertory – have the power to knock down walls between classes, cultures and age groups.
   That, at least, was the case with the Nanjing-born, German-trained Li Biao, who appeared with his percussion ensemble on Tuesday at the Shenzhen Concert Hall. Li (pictured), who’s been making the orchestral rounds in China as a concerto soloist this season, is similarly at home at the centre of his sextet, which has parlayed its appearance at last summer’s Olympic closing ceremony into a China tour of its own.

    Even by the standards of the genre, the Li Biao Percussion Ensemble’s performance was big on physical theatre. Deep Steam by Ensemble member Philipp Jungk opened the evening in an electro-acoustic soundscape, where not just the musical lines but also the performers moved in contrary motion. Fellow player Rudi Bauer’s comedic Clap Trap began essentially as Steve Reich’s Clapping Music hijacked by the Marx Brothers, eventually morphing into an audience chorus of footstamps and fingersnaps.

   Audience members – and not just the children – had a hard time settling down for the considerably more meditative spirit of Li’s Dao, which drew heavily on the sonorities of Taoist and Buddhist ritual. Otherwise, the virtuosity was brisk and showy, with Russell Peck’s Lift Off imitating the sound of helicopters and Li’s Drama Xdistilling Guo Wenjing’s percussion trio Drama into a solo display with all of the piece’s extended Peking Opera gong and cymbal techniques and none of its artistry. George Hamilton Green’s Joplinesque Ragtime, a four-movement showcase for mallet percussion, was at least two movements too long.

   After a respectable, if shamelessly populist, 90 minutes, the ensemble started pulling out the heavyweight pieces. The opening movement of Steve Reich’s Drumming lacked in subtlety but was imbued with focus and discipline. Li flanked his solo presence in Minoru Miki’s Marimba Spiritual with a battery of extra percussion, highlighting a full range of dynamic and timbral contrasts.

   Fortunately, the gambit paid off. As far as their musical terrain was concerned, the ensemble took their cue from a legendary member of the “blow” family: play to the crowd long enough, and the crowd will follow you anywhere.