TimeOut Beijing: The best of Beijing Music Festival 2017

TimeOut Beijing

Beijing's premier music festival turns 20 this year.

The very definition of a Beijing institution, this year the Beijing Music Festival (BMF) celebrates two decades and counting. Beijingers have grown accustomed to top music talent trolling through the city, but it was the BMF that first catapulted China onto the world stage. This year, the creative programming continues apace with an evening of Welsh music, a celebration of Chinese contemporary composers, Beijing’s first Beethoven symphonic cycle, a 12-hour musical marathon and opera events ranging from a single cast member to full-stage Wagner. With opening and closing concerts featuring Frank Peter and Serge Zimmerman (pictured top right), and Maxim Vengerov respectively, Beijing is where you want to be this month.

Orchestral marathon

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Wear comfy clothes, bring energy bars and settle in for a long but exhilarating day – even buying one half-day ticket gets you into five concerts. The marathon’s part one (10am-3pm) is a collection of lighter global favourites, such as the always popular Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No 5, Elgar’s Liebesgruss, Bizet’s Carmen Prelude, Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, Lu and Mao’s Dance of the Yao People, Hua and Wu’s The Moon Over a Fountain, Wang Xilin’s (known as China’s Shostakovich) triumphant Torch Festival, and the like. Part two (5pm-10pm) takes on some weight in the form of composer, conductor and China favourite Krzysztof Penderecki’s Chinese Songs, featuring baritone Yuan Chenye (the 'B' cast for Placido Domingo’s 'A' when in China). We’ll also see China’s cello luminary Wang Jian playing Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, and He Ziyu perform the rarely-heard Glazunov’s Violin Concerto in A minor. Other pieces include Stravinsky’s The Firebird (1919 Version) and Smetana’s Die Moldau. Something for everyone – especially those with stamina.

BMF opera

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For a while, the BMF was Beijing’s only opera game in town, and even today its programming stands out. This year offers three vastly different performances, from the minimalist to the complex, from the mundane to the fantastic. Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine (Thu 19-Sat 21) (the human voice) is a heart-wrenching and deeply personal look at a solitary woman whose former boyfriend is getting married the following day. In the days before drunk texting, an ill-advised phone call was a spurned lover’s only option, and this lonely soprano makes that final call. (Although most versions are sung in monologue, this one incorporates a dancer for mood – a risky call, since this story stands on its own). Continuing its experiments with digital opera, the BMF also presents the Immersive Opera Vixen (Mon 9-Wed 11). This is a 360-degree take on Leos Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen, his unusual work drawn from a serialised novel that traces the lifecycles of a wily fox, her animal counterparts, and some hapless humans. In this case, the vixen (Rosie Lomas) is a street urchin, and the live singers mix with pre-recorded music audiences hear on headphones as they immerse themselves by promenading through various rooms. As for Wagner, we’re immersed whether we like it or not. This year, BMF delivers part two of the famous (or infamous, in terms of length) Ring Cycle. Die Walkure (Tue 24, Fri 27) continues where Das Rheingold left off, and sees the warrior Siegmund falling in love with his estranged sister Sieglinde – the result is Siegfried, which takes us to part three. Another time. This is a co-production with Salzburg Easter Festival and makes its Asian premiere at the BMF. If you see one Ring Cycle work, see the one with the Ride of Valkyries, and channel your inner helicopter.

Beethoven cycle

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Speaking of massive works, the BMF hosts Paavo Jarvi and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen in the city’s first Beethoven symphonic cycle. Beethoven’s symphonies literally changed music forever; they were so intimidating to his contemporaries – not to mention his musical descendants –that the number nine became a curse. Now you can see why, in four easy concerts. Eroica (Sun 22) takes on the first, second and third symphonies; Destiny (Mon 23) covers the fourth and the fifth, Pastoral (Wed 25) is for numbers six and seven, and Choral (Thu 26) concludes brilliantly with symphonies eight and nine.

Traditional meets contemporary

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These back-to-back concerts combine BMF’s love of folk music with its championing of modern composers. Thriving Artistry of Contemporary China (Mon 16) features Zhang Qianyi’s Yunnan Capriccio Orchestral Suite, Guo Wenjing’s Lotus (Lianhua) Overture for Symphony Orchestra and Zhou Long’s Beijing Rhyme: Symphonic Suite For Orchestra. Zhou and Guo were part of the now legendary 'first class' of Central Conservatory of Music composition students after the schools were reopened in 1977, a group that also included Tan Dun, Ye Xiaogang and Chen Yi. But if the contemporary proves to be too much, relax with some trad music in Walking Around The World (Tue 17). Breathing fire into earthy tradition is the Welsh group Calan, which includes the multi-talented Bethan Williams-Jones, a singer-dancer-pianist- accordion player, as well as harpist Alice French, guitarist Sam Humphreys and fiddlers Patrick Rimes and Angharad Jenkins. Expect to tap your toes.