The Forbidden City Chamber Orchestra visited Auckland three years ago, offering a taste of Chinese music for those keen to travel beyond the bland, homogenised world of the Yellow River Concerto.
This group provided the Finale for an ambitious week of Asian concerts in the 2011 Auckland Arts Festival; the Town Hall Concert Chamber put its Steinway in the cupboard and the stage was taken over by an exotic band of xiao, pipa, yangqin, daruan, guzheng, sheng and erhu.
These musicians return next Saturday, direct from the New Zealand Arts Festival in Wellington, and will provide an unforgettable launch for Chamber Music New Zealand's season with Tales From the Forbidden City.
This time around, the programme features a coming together of two worlds. Five New Zealand composers - Jack Body, Michael Norris, David Downes, Dylan Lardelli and Tabea Squire - have written pieces that weave the soundworld of the Chinese instruments with that of the New Zealand String Quartet.
Michael Norris is quick to praise the tireless Jack Body, who was very much the instigator for this project. "He's the visionary," Norris says. "It's Jack who has managed to sell what may have seemed like a difficult proposition to the festival and Chamber Music New Zealand."
He admits that his own score, Inner Phases, which shares the stage with a video by Downes, blends the full Chinese ensemble with the NZSQ, and was "the hardest piece I've ever written".
He remembers an initial visit to Beijing last year and being startled by the different dynamic level of the new instruments. "Technically there was nothing about the stuff I had written that was impossible to play. But I had quite misjudged the ensemble balance; which instruments tended to come to the fore and which were more in the background. I came back to New Zealand, virtually threw away everything I'd written and started again," he laughs.
Norris has written for the NZSQ before (his Exitus is on the group's 2011 Atoll CD Notes from a Journey) and it was like working with friends.
"They are brilliant in rehearsal," Norris says. "With some groups you get an hour and that's that, it's done and dusted. These musicians will start off with a few basic questions and, with every new rehearsal, they go deeper and deeper into the work.
It's almost like fractal geometry. No matter how far into the score you get, there are always new worlds of expression that these players want to quiz me about."
On the Chinese side, did Norris form any attachment to one particular exotic sonority? "The sheng, a Chinese mouth-organ, and the guzheng, a sort of hammered dulcimer, would certainly be two," he explains. "Partially because the players were so good but also because the sound was so gorgeous."
This Oriental soundworld is at the core of the whole score, the composer points out. "Initially I'd envisaged a free, atmospheric approach, but as I thought more about the special quality of the Chinese instruments, I realized that pulse would play a part."
He talks of the important sense of movement than runs through his piece, of pulse streams that build up between the Eastern and Western instruments, combined with pitch-sliding or glissandi that catches the inflections of Chinese speech.
The theme of Inner Phases, he admits, is very much derived from Chinese philosophy and cosmology. It grows from the cycles of the natural world - winter turns into spring and wood feeds fire that, in turn, melts metal. "By the second half this all becomes quite energised, erupting out of the still centre of the score," he adds.
After all, this has been set up from the very first page, played at whisper level with a gong dipped into water and mysterious triple glissandi. "It's very ethereal and I'm happy with that gesture which, in fact, feeds the rest of the work."
What: Tales From the Forbidden City
Where and when: Raye Freedman Arts Centre, 6 Silver Rd, Epsom, Saturday, March 15 at 8pm