Glowing in the wind

By William Dart

Xia Jing joins NZTrio for Glow.
Xia Jing joins NZTrio for Glow.

When NZTrio travels to Beijing next month for a concert of specially commissioned New Zealand music, the group will celebrate its ninth trip to China in a little more than a decade - and violinist Justine Cormack relishes her role as Kiwi musical ambassador.

"Each time we've visited China, there have been different connections," Cormack says. "We started off with university contacts through Jack Body and, more recently, two different companies have toured us doing public concerts."

This month, Auckland can sample some of the delights destined for Beijing when the group's Glow concert schedules music by Gareth Farr, Gao Ping and Zhou Long alongside mainstream Rachmaninov. There's also the bonus of guest soloist Xia Jing, whose guzheng, or Chinese zither, is integral to both new scores.

For Xia Jing, this ancient instrument "has become part of my life". She explains the origins of its name ("zheng" catches the sound of a string being plucked while "gu" is Mandarin for "old") and it's an instrument that symbolises the wisdom of the ages and is closely linked to the natural world.

"In ancient China," she adds, "there were 12 strings just as there are 12 months in a year."

Composer Gao Ping has strong and personal links with New Zealand, having taught at Canterbury University for eight years from 2004, before taking up professorial duties at Beijing's Capital Normal University. His Feng Zheng (Kite) had its world premiere in Wellington last week and he is very happy to have it played by "such a superb musician and virtuoso".

"Working with Jing on numerous projects has been a uniformly wonderful experience," he says. "She has this radiant personality that always shines through in her performances."

She, too, is keen to point out the work's Chinese title plays on the name of her instrument, pointing out how the work sets up all these different impressions of the wind, "from relaxed and emotional to very passionate, all brought to life through the sound of my instrument".

This is not the first time NZTrio has played the music of Gao Ping - the four short pieces of his Su Xie Si Ti were included on the group's Lightbox album last year - but Feng Zheng is a full-scale composition.

Its composer talks of transforming the expected piano trio sound into something else with the added sonorities of the guzheng. "Even the familiar violin, cello and piano will take on a different aura in this new context," he adds, as they blend in with an ancient instrument "so refreshingly clear and transparent in sound, expressively bending the pitch of its notes".

Together with Cormack and Xia Jing, he stresses that the piece is a tribute to the late Jack Body, who did so much to bring the music of the East and West together.

Gao Ping says he finds it difficult to do justice to Jack as both a composer and a personal friend. "He was a visionary, not afraid to break rules if something exciting might come of it. It is marvellous to know that his spirit lives on in the hearts and music-making of those who were privileged to know him."

- NZ Herald

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