Like cultural events around the world, the 23rd Beijing Music Festival is going mostly virtual this year. But BMF 2020 is anything but thinned out, with an astonishing 240 hours of nonstop programming over 10 days, as I described in a recent preview. The opening concert on October 10 presented what is sure to be remembered as one of the highlights: the world premiere of ‘Dedicated to 2020’ by Wuhan composer Ye Zou.
With a libretto by Tang Yuesheng, this hourlong cantata-oratorio recounts the progression of the coronavirus pandemic in Wuhan during the course of this plague year. Maestro Zou Ye led a packed, non-social-distanced stageful of musicians from the Beijing Symphony, Wuhan Philharmonic, and China Philharmonic Orchestras, with soprano Liping Zhang, baritone He Leiming, and the Wuhan Conservatory of Music Choir.
The libretto celebrates the courage of the city’s frontline workers. But the ambitious music itself was the truest tribute to the fighting human spirit that carried virus-afflicted humanity, and in particular the people of hard-hit Wuhan, through the deadly winter-spring wave of COVID-19.
The first movement begins with a soft tolling of bells, as if to commemorate the dead, followed by a sweet pastoral melody suggesting repose. But a small-scale Wagnerian drama develops, driven by insistent triplets as the choir and He sing of “lost and bewildered souls.” The triplet motif returns energetically in the second movement, evoking the bright buzz of pre-virus city life and paying tribute to frontline workers. A triumphant climax expresses the explicit theme of “Hope.”
An Adagio interlude features lovely writing for strings and woodwinds. Liping then sang of a fragile but determined butterfly, and He convincingly delivered a charming lied on the theme “Love is our final joy,” his voice shining with a golden tone and a gentle brightness.
Pastoral Romantic-style music belied sad tidings in the next movement, where Liping sang with a mellow yet expressive tone. The theme of falling cherry blossoms evoked a return to life, words sung with sweetness by the female choir. In the penultimate movement a narrator delivered a highly dramatic poetic monologue with a message of fellowship.
The work concludes with “Rebirth Sonata,” including musical dialogues between baritone and soprano and between men’s and women’s choirs, with a return to horn triplets reminiscent of a hunting call but reminded us of the cycle of life.
Through its eight movements the invigorating Dedicated to 2020 sticks to standard Western modes. Ye wields them with assurance and grace. It’s a work of real substance, not startling or groundbreaking but effectively conveying its themes of adversity, heroism, the temptation to despair, and a successful rebirth of society. Through this sterling world premiere performance it presented a hopeful musical vision of a return to normalcy, tinged with aspirations of harmony among peoples, nations, and nature.
The performers themselves were living that vision, the musicians not distanced from one another on stage, the members of the large choir standing shoulder to shoulder in close rows. One can only assume the Festival found a way through thorough testing to make this happen safely. Witnessing it, even online, put me in mind of my concert-going habits of the before-time, habits I long to pick up again.
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