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Ottawa Chamber Fest concert review

Exotic concert evokes the Silk Road

Juno-nominated Orchid Ensemble combines traditional tunes and newly created works, by Christopher Moore, Globe and Mail, July 28, 2010

With close to 100 concerts jam-packed into a two-week period, the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival offers music lovers an opportunity to sate their thirst for high-quality, live performance at practically any time of day. The most nocturnal concerts are organized in the basement of St. Brigid’s Centre for the Arts and the atmosphere, despite the lack of air conditioning but perhaps as a result of the presence of warm food and cold beer, encourages audience members to “chill out” after a long day on the festival circuit.

On Monday evening, this collective chilling was abetted by a concert given by Vancouver-based Orchid Ensemble. Combining inspirations drawn equally from world music and the contemporary classical scene, this three-part, Juno-nominated group plied their musical wares on traditional Chinese string instruments such as the zheng and erhu, along with a broad array of percussive toys, including marimbas, bells, cymbals and drums.

The concert, entitled The Road to Kashgar, brought together both arrangements of traditional tunes and newly composed works to evoke the atmosphere and traditions of the multicultural mosaic that once thrived along the expansive trade routes of the ancient Silk Road. From simple adaptations of classic Chinese melodies to a musical revisiting of the flourishing ancient Jewish culture of Kaifeng, or Canadian pieces revelling in the mash-up of Asian and Western instruments and cultures, Orchid Ensemble gently conjured up alternate and diverse worlds of time and place.

The most effective pieces on the program were the simpler arrangements, such as the song entitled Hujia, which is based on the poetry of Cai Wenji, a Han Dynasty writer and composer born in 177 AD. Ensemble member and erhu performer Lan Tung may not have the voice of a Beijing opera star, but her humble and unaffected recitation of this ancient poetry, discreetly enveloped by the tinkle of Tibetan cymbals and the vibrating shimmer of the zheng’s silken strings, set the exotic tone for this short concert.

Likewise, the ensemble’s arrangement of a Bengali folk song, replete with Persian and Indian influences, rocked the basement. Here, Tung momentarily explored her inner Jimi Hendrix while percussionist Jonathan Bernard coolly extemporized an elaborate solo on the marimba.