DAZZLING DUET: Placido Domingo and Song Zuying in perfect harmony (JIN LIANGKUAI)
It was a blue-sky summer day in Beijing. In the afternoon sun the metallic twists of the iconic National Stadium of China, also known as Bird's Nest, sent slivers of silver light in all directions. On the ground crowds surged toward the entry points, hounded by swarms of ticket scalpers, chirping excitedly. The people came to see a concert of China's famous folk singer Song Zuying later that night and also to enjoy the feeling of being inside one of the world's most spectacular venues.
The stadium, which provided 60,000 seats for the concert, was 90 percent full on the night. Besides Song, there were clearly other attractions on the bill. Chinese pop king Jay Chow, Spanish tenor Placido Domingo and young piano prodigy Lang Lang had all drawn their own fans.
Before the concert, Song said that she hoped the concert will facilitate a new dialogue between Chinese and international music. "The three guest performers are musical giants in their own right and I look forward to the energy flowing between us during the performances," she said.
With east meeting west and pop meeting classical in the Bird's Nest, the concert attracted a cross section of old and young, local residents and tourists.
After a short dance performance, Song started the concert with a vocal solo of Jasmine Flowers, the symbol of Chinese folk songs to well-recognized Western audiences. The stadium's acoustics was improved by the closing of the retractable roof, a novel setting for the appreciative audience.
Nicknamed "Jasmine of the People," the consummate singer has performed the song at varied occasions, including her solo concerts in the Golden Hall of Vienna in 2003 and the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. in 2006.
To the audience's surprise, Song performed a hip-hop version of her signature piece, Spice Girls, with a band called Cut Time from the United States.
Song then sang several duets with Chow, reaching a climax with his hit Thousands of Miles Apart, a love song that seems to describe the nostalgia Taiwanese have for the mainland.
The audience was emotionally connected to the music.
"It's more than a communication between two different styles of singing," Yang Yaopeng, a retiree of a machinery manufacturing company, told Beijing Review. "It conveys affection between family members as well as emotional bonds between two sides on the Taiwan Straits," he said.
The concert also showcased the versatility of Chow as a talented musician. He played Zheng, an ancient Chinese instrument with 25 strings while singing a solo, Chrysanthemum Terrace, accompanied by a collaboration of three major Chinese orchestras: the China Philharmonic, Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra. It is a song he composed for Zhang Yimou's 2006 movie, Curse of the Golden Flower, in which he acted as the second son, Prince Jie.
While performing the last piece of the concert, Auld lang Syne, Chow first played a piano duet with Lang Lang, and then sang alongside Song and Domingo.
In the audience Ying Lixia, a mother of three-year-old son, screamed with excitement the entire time Chow performed. She said she also was amazed at the adept movements of Lang Lang's hands, which were displayed on two giant screens on both sides of the stage during his piano solo, Hungarian Rhapsody No.2.
When Placido Domingo took the stage he sang a duet Kangding Love Song, a folk song originating in Kangding, southwest China's Sichuan Province, with Song. Young pianist Lang Lang accompanied the pair on piano. The Spanish tenor sang it in Chinese, but that didn't affect him wringing every ounce of feeling from the song.
The concert marked Song and Domingo's Bird's Nest reunion after the two collaborated in the Beijing Olympic closing ceremony theme song, the Flame of Love, last summer.
During the song stunt men dressed in flame-like costumes were seen flying down from the top of the gilded palace-like stage reminding audiences of the Olympic spectacle in 2008.
Dwayne L. Melrose, Vice President of Exploration with the Beijing office of Vancouver-based Minco Mining Group, said the crossover was "very interesting."
"The duet by Song and Domingo was the highlight of the evening to me. I thought the strong tenor voice of Domingo and the feminine sound of Song complemented each other very well. With the correct duet song selection, their voices would be amazing together," he said.
A field survey conducted on the night of the concert by a Beijing-based celebrity rating company, Lianxin Tianxia Research, revealed that almost 70 percent of the audience enjoyed the crossover fusion between artists from various musical genres.
Promoting folk songs
About half of the performances were Song's solos of select folk songs of China. Belonging to the Miao ethnic group, a nationality fond of dancing and singing, Song rose to fame from humble beginning.
Her vocal educator, Jin Tielin, President of the China Conservatory of Music, said Song attained fame because of her perseverance and diligence. "She was always there in the basement she rented, waiting for my call to give her lessons," Jin said, recalling days when he tutored her.
The low-key soprano was born to sing. She was the first Chinese woman singer who had solo concerts overseas, starting at the Sydney Opera House in Australia in 2002 and then Vienna and Washington D.C.
For years, Song has attempted to combine folk songs with elements of bel canto and pop music in order to make Chinese folk songs more acceptable to young audiences in China and around the world.
"I'm greatly impressed by her melodious, silken and spotless voice and her unique way of interpreting folk songs, though I find it hard for me to emotionally interact with lyrics of folk songs in general, " Ying told Beijing Review.
Willy Strauss, the great grandson of the Waltz King Johann Strauss Senior, enjoyed her songs, Spice Girls in particular. "It is a fresh experience for Europeans to listen to her music, because she perfectly combines Chinese folk songs with Western music," he said during Song's trip to Vienna in 2003.
Chow, himself a Song fan, said her music is "like a river" while his and Lang Lang's are like "streams." "But we share the same goal of flowing into the ocean of music, the world music repertoire," he said.
In her album the Diva Goes to the Movies, launched during the celebration of 100th anniversary of China's movie industry, Song reinterpreted 14 theme songs of classic Chinese films. The album was nominated for the Best Classical Crossover Album at the 49th Grammy Awards in 2006.
The Bird's Nest Summer Concert Series is one of the many plans to transform the Bird's Nest into a profitable Beijing hotspot. Stadium operators expect to develop it into a long-term annual brand each June 30.
Living nearby, Yang and his wife looked forward to having more such kind of performances in Beijing's Olympic venues. "We need such entertainments very much to enrich our retired life," Yang told Beijing Review.
But the costly entertainment is not something ordinary residents can afford often. The tickets for "Glamour China" ranged from 180 yuan to 2,880 yuan ($26.3-421.7). The previous crossover concert, starring Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan, called "Descendants of the Dragon: Jackie Chan and Friends" held at the stadium during the May Day holiday, was the first major commercial event in the venue after the Beijing Olympics last year. The tickets then were much cheaper, between 100 yuan to 1680 yuan ($14.6-246).
Other upcoming events at the stadium include the opera Turandot, staged by Zhang Yimou, will begin on October 6. Zhang was Chief Director of opening and closing ceremonies for the Beijing Olympics last summer. Additionally Beijing's first international car racing festival, the 2009 ROC Nations Cup will be held on November 1, 2009.