Tangram Celebrates the Lunar New Year at LSO St Luke’s

This week marks the Lunar New Year of the Tiger, and Tangram, a collective of musicians of Chinese heritage, celebrated on 29 January at LSO St Luke’s in London. The stage setting gave us a taster of what was to come: a Steinway grand, yangqin, an array of gongs, temple blocks, and a marimba, an electric guitar, water-filled dishes, and rice bowls on a piano stool. LSO St Luke’s is a converted church on a busy road (but very well soundproofed) with impressive volume and a wraparound balcony. The eclectic programme and colourful lighting created an atmosphere more like a festival than a concert, as did the gift of sweets in a red and gold envelope presented to each audience member.

Founded by Alex Ho and Reylon Yount, Tangram’s aim is to create a transcultural space for musicians of Chinese heritage. Their work goes beyond the concert hall to embrace advocacy and debate: this event was, typically for them, preceded by a pre-concert discussion. Yount, a virtuoso yangqin (Chinese hammered dulcimer) performer was joined by the stunning young flautist Daniel Shao and percussionist Beibei Wang, with the fine chamber musician Annie Yim appearing as a guest artist. Two of the evening’s featured composers, Tonia Ko and Vivian Fung, pointed out that the ‘East meets West’ binary doesn’t reflect them, but Tangram’s approach, according to Ko, acknowledges ‘the complexities around heritage.’

Tangram Lunar New Year performance at LSO St Luke's in London--Photo by Mike Skelton

Tangram Lunar New Year performance at LSO St Luke’s in London–Photo by Mike Skelton

Tangram’s set opened in suitably upbeat, celebratory mood with Ho’s arrangement of “Beautiful Flowers and The Full Moon,” a 1935 Chinese popular song celebrating the Lunar New Year, with multiple rising modulations adding a layer of cheese. More typical of Tangram’s contemporary interests was Rockey Sun Keting’s Erasure for Chinese and Western instruments (piano, flute and yangqin), co-commissioned by the Silk Road Project in 2019. Sun Keting grew up in China, though her initial training was in Western classical music. Here, she treated the yangqin as ‘the inside of a piano,’ working in extreme high and low registers with the yangqin and flute in between.

Wang’s witty JiuGe, inspired by Chinese drinking games, was a trio for her, Yount, and Shao, all vocalising or playing percussion instruments. While I don’t understand their language, the trio acted out a lively stylised conversation in a way that made everyone laugh. Wang’s imaginative way with percussion sonorities – including amplified bubbles in a water bowl – reflected her extraordinary virtuosity as a performer. She can make a gong roar and a drum moan.

Reylon Yount--Photo by Benjamin Ealovega

Reylon Yount–Photo by Benjamin Ealovega

Emmy the Great (Emma-Lee Moss), of Hong Kong/British heritage, sings in English and Chinese languages and appeared as a guest artist, her rather ordinary ballads given discreet embellishment by Tangram. For her, it was ‘healing’ to be in an environment where she was not asked to choose a single identity.

Farewell Dwelling by Tonia Ko was inspired by the reciprocation of care in a Confucian sense – and more directly by her maternal grandmother, now being cared for by her nine children. Scored for yangqin, piano, percussion, and flute, its contrasting timbres were related yet each had their own distinctive character. Ko workshopped with Yount and was attracted to the specific timbre of the yangqin when the strings are muted (a much more dramatic change than for most instruments, taking away almost all the pitch). Yount’s precision, rapidly beating his yangqin, was reflected in the similar beating of the other instruments, and Ho as conductor ensured the sonorities were perfectly balanced. Ko’s striking approach to sound made this the musical highlight of the programme.

Tonia Ko--Photo by Matt Dine

Tonia Ko–Photo by Matt Dine

Yount winked at the audience as he said the name of the next composer, Mantawoman – which is, in fact, his ‘queer virtual siren persona.’ The slow ballad Night and Day was underpinned by reiterated chords on the yangqin and showcased Yount’s lovely baritone.

Dazzling instrumental display returned for Vivian Fung’s hugely challenging Sparks for yangqin, percussion, and flute, Shao’s virtuosic flute responding to the urgency of the yangqin and Wang’s vibrant drumming. Minimalist energy and a deep understanding of the instruments characterised this work, which was inspired by the ‘many movements of positive change and collective energy’ that somehow emerged from the current pandemic. All artists returned to the performance space for the final number, a Chinese cover of the Cranberries’ song “Dreams” led by Emmy with Yim and Yount on backing vocals.

Tangram are a collective we should all listen to. They have a distinctive group personality, taking us well beyond clichés about East-West connections and breaking down barriers. Their ideas are at the cutting edge of contemporary debates around identity and how this is expressed and communicated in musical terms. Tangram are all about multiplicity, embracing widely varied musical styles as versatile artists. They show us that for the 21st century Chinese diaspora, identities and musics are plural – very much both/and, not either/or.


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