We had not come to the Civic Theatre to hear Haydn and Mozart from Kronos Quartet; in partnership with pipa virtuoso Wu Man, the Americans were offering a rare mingling of music and magic.

The hushed enchantment of Tan Dun's 1994 Ghost Opera weaves the ancient mysteries of the composer's homeland into a poetic ritual that incorporates the music of Bach at its most yearning and words of Shakespeare that pre-empt the existential.

The musicians pitted the innocence of folk music against the elemental sounds of stone, metal and water. When the brilliant Wu's pipa was at its most mandolin-like, it was not difficult to imagine that some ghostly bluegrass had strayed into the Chinese hinterland.

After interval came the 2009 A Chinese Home, a collaboration between Kronos leader, David Harrington, Wu Man and the charismatic Chen Shi-Zheng, responsible for the visual design.


This 52-minute journey through Chinese history played out in front of a carefully curated video stream, with the musicians' costumes graduating from old-style ceremonial robes through Mao jackets to modern-day business suits.

It was fascinating to compare the cool impassivity of on-screen Chinese musicians with the drive and spark of the live quintet, and Wu was a revelation as a sweet-voiced chanteuse.

The section devoted to Shanghai occasioned nostalgic film footage, together with recordings from the glamorous Zhou Xuan to familiar Billie Holiday. The players blended subtlety into a patchwork of songs in which the sentimental was often only surface deep. The third section covered Mao's years, bypassing the brutalities of the Cultural Revolution.

The musicians enjoyed the tongue-in-cheek kitsch of a Revolutionary Suite from the 1964 film The East is Red. Arranger Jacob Garchik came up with just the right ironic sounds for images of high-kicking ballerinas with bayonets.

The final scene proved a theatrical coup. Wu delivered a Jimi Hendrix turn on electric pipa, while her colleagues opened ominous crates to set mechanical toys whirring and flashing all over the stage. Without a doubt, another festival triumph.

Kronos Quartet and Wu Man
Where: Civic Theatre
When: Saturday
Reviewer: William Dart