Musical class burnished in the heat of the moment

Pianist Chen Sa.[Photo provided to China Daily]

A tenor and a pianist hit the road with some classical favorites, Chen Nan reports.

As if giving a musical recital were not pressure enough, when the tenor Shi Yijie and the pianist Chen Sa prepared to perform in Changsha on Sept 12, a little drama was simmering away that threatened to turn the proceedings into an operatic minidrama.

It was hot in the capital of Hunan, and inside the Changsha Concert Hall the air conditioning had decided to go on strike. As everybody awaited Shi's grand entry, the hall was steaming and aflutter with program sheets that members of the audience had turned into fans.

"I planned to perform about 20 Chinese art songs but wasn't sure whether the audience was going to enjoy it till the end," says Shi, who is a winner of international vocal music competitions and performing at major international opera houses, including the Metropolitan Opera of New York, the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome and the Teatro La Fenice in Venice.

"It wasn't just that they might not know the songs I was singing, but that it was really hot inside that hall. I was nervous."

Once Shi and Chen appeared, the fluttering stopped, and the pair's performance received a warm reception appropriate to the occasion. Some in the audience were music school teachers, who told Shi they were keen to learn about Chinese art songs so they could teach them to their students, something that added to Shi's elation after he and Chen managed to negotiate this technology-induced scare.

The concert in Changsha was the first stop of a nationwide tour by Shi and Chen that runs until April and takes place in cities including Xi'an, Shanghai and Chongqing.

The tour is in support of a new album, titled Zhongguo Yishu Gequ (Chinese Art Songs), which was released on Nov 19. It was the first collaboration of Shi and Chen. The album, featuring a total of 20 songs, roughly follows the chronological order as a clue to the composers, something Shi had long wanted to do.

After COVID-19 broke out early last year, he, like many singers worldwide, had to cancel his performances, which allowed him to devote a lot of time to the album.

"Chinese art songs have always been an essential part of Chinese music," he says. "Though I've been performing roles in Western operas, I have always had a deep love and affection for Chinese art songs."

The first composer who came to his mind as he was preparing his album was Huang Zi (1904-38), whose songs, including Mei Gui San Yuan (Three Wishes of a Rose) and Si Xiang Qu (Homesickness), were featured on the album.

Shi was born in Chuansha, Shanghai, as was Huang, which has naturally given him some affinity with the composer. Huang was trained at Oberlin College in Ohio and at Yale University and returned to China in 1929. He was one of the most important Chinese composers and a renowned music educator.

"When I did research on art songs Huang Zi composed I was impressed by the beauty of the lyrics as well as the melodies," says Shi, who later expanded the album's repertoire by researching more Chinese composers' art songs and recording them. These include: Qiu Ye (Autumn Night) and Wang Yun (Staring At The Clouds) by Lin Shengxi; Si Ren He Zai (Where Is She) by Huang Yongxi; and Hong Dou Ci (Song of the Red Bean) by Liu Xue'an.

Lin Shengxi was a student of Huang Zi, Shi says.

"He also developed his own music style. For example, Autumn Night was composed when Lin was living in Hong Kong in 1957. He portrayed a sense of tranquility with the song. Lin's other song Staring At The Clouds was composed in 1937 shortly after he moved to Hong Kong, in which he expressed his homesickness. When I learned about the stories behind each song I gained a new insight into each of them, and this helps me to sing them better."

Tenor Shi Yijie and pianist Chen Sa (right).[Photo provided to China Daily]

Shi, 39, who received his vocal training in Shanghai, graduated with top score at the Toho College of Music in Tokyo in 2006, and the college offered him a fellowship to study music in Austria in 2007. He had his first role in an opera production of Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte in 2007, and in 2008 he performed in the Rossini Opera Festival in Italy, its first Chinese singer. He returned to China in 2011.

He and Chen spent four days together recording the album at Xi'an Concert Hall, Xi'an, at the end of August.

"It's our first collaboration and she has added a great deal of color to the recording," Shi says.

"Art songs are about singing and piano performance. Unlike performing in operas, which are full of drama, art songs seem to be very simple. However, it's challenging for both the singer and the pianist. Both of us need to restrain our performances to produce sounds mildly."

Chen says: "It was the first time to learn and perform Chinese art songs, which are like traditional Chinese paintings and leave me with lots of space to imagine."

Chen is a native of Chongqing who learned to play piano at the age of 9 and achieved fame after winning fourth place as the youngest contestant at the Leeds International Piano Competition in England in 1996.

In 1997 she enrolled in the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London with a full scholarship and three year later was fourth in the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw.

"Every note has a meaning, though each song is very short, about three minutes," Chen says. "When I put my fingers on the piano the sounds were like drops of ink, applying colors to the songs along with the vocalist."

The veteran composer Ye Xiaogang says: "Both of Shi and Chen are great young musicians in China. They have made great achievements in their own fields. This album is a great combination of these two young artists who bring a breath of fresh air to Chinese art songs."

In 2010, before Shi returned to China, he performed in the world premiere of Ye's original opera, Ode to Farewell, at the Beijing Music Festival, which was his debut performance in the country.

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