The best of Beijing Music Festival 2018

China's premier classical music festival enters its third decade

West Side Story in Concert. Image: Todd Rosenberg
Rightfully lauded for the variety of its sharp, sophisticated programmes, the Beijing Music Festival (BMF) returns this October for the 21st year running. Standouts on the bill include rising star composer Fay Kueen Wang's immersive reinvention of opera’s oldest story, Orfeo, as well as two concerts celebrating Leonard Bernstein’s centenary, featuring his second symphony, and the score to West Side Story. Here are just some of the other highlights.

The Diary of One Who Disappeared

Dagboek van een verdwenene_©_Jan Versweyveld_03
Image: Jan Versweyveld

Artists have always had muses, but the platonic relationship of Kamila Stösslová and Leoš Janáček was unusually and wonderfully fertile. The Czech nationalist composer's chance meeting with this married mother-of-two nearly four decades his junior consumed him until his death, inspiring works such as The Cunning Little Vixen, The Makropulos Affair, Glagolitic Mass, String Quartet No. 2, and the song cycle, The Diary of One Who Disappeared.

Diary is drawn from a series of poems about a peasant boy obsessed with a gypsy girl. This clearly resonated with Janáček, who channeled his unrequited feelings for Stösslová into an ardent, even erotic song cycle where a tenor, mezzo-soprano, a small female choir and a piano chronicle a story of passion, consummation and predictable tragedy (operas with gypsy girls rarely end well). The BMF has always excelled in opera programming; this year, Muziektheater Transparant gives its music theatre version of Diary its Asia premiere.

Multidimension Theatre. 7.30pm. Oct 21-22. 180RMB

Beethoven Concerto Cycle

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In 2013, his celebrated Beethoven sonata cycle made him BMF’s Artist of the Year; in 2018, Rudolf Buchbinder performs the master’s piano concertos from start to finish. During his five-decade-long career, Buchbinder has made over 100 recordings of multiple artists, but his name is increasingly twinned with Beethoven, who he says has pursued him day and night, and even entered his dreams. And although sometimes criticised for erratic interpretations, Buchbinder's performances are based on copious research drawn from his extensive collection of untouched manuscripts, first editions and revisions – he owns 18 editions of Beethoven's sonatas alone. This level of care and attention to detail is rare in our modern age, which in itself makes these concerts worth seeing.

Poly Theatre. 7.30pm. Oct 17-18. 80-880RMB

Farewell My Concubine

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The BMF has spent years developing their China Concept, giving a platform – and even commissions – to Chinese composers and showcasing Chinese performances. In 2010, the BMF presented Ye Xiaogang’s Western-opera-style version of Farewell My Concubine; this year, at the BMF Grand Opening, director and designer Chen Shi-Zheng presents a reimagined version of the Peking opera classic by combining multimedia effects, modern dance and spectacle-style Chinese theatre.

Poly Theatre. 7.30pm. Oct 12. 80-880RMB

Written on Skin

George Benjamin shaded portrait credit Matthew Lloyd
Image: Matthew Lloyd

This powerful opera is drawn from a French medieval tale of obsession. A wealthy landowner (the Protector) hires a young manuscript illuminator (the Boy) to record his life, until he discovers his biographer’s affair with his beautiful, if oppressed, wife (Agnès). Enraged, he murders the Boy and cooks his heart for a special dinner, breaking the news after Agnès has cleaned her plate. As he moves to exact revenge, she leaps from a balcony to her death, but not before telling her husband that he can never undo what the Boy has 'written on her skin' – a romantic, even erotic bent to medieval texts written on animal skin.

Composer George Benjamin (above), a former composing prodigy whose mentor Olivier Messiaen compared him to Mozart, breaks tradition by making the hero a countertenor, an adult male singing in soprano range, which makes for unique duets between the Boy and soprano Agnès. He also backs him with unusual instruments such as mandolins, the Baroque-era viola da gamba and the glass harmonica: invented by Benjamin Franklin, this controversial instrument has over the years been said to cause melancholia, nervous disorders or madness for musicians and listeners alike. Find out for yourself.

Poly Theatre. 7.30pm. Oct 23. 50-680RMB

The Orphan of Zhao

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Theatregoers who missed New York's Lincoln Center production in 2003 can finally see The Orphan of Zhao. For this version of the Yuan dynasty play – the first Chinese play ever translated into any European language – composer Stephin Merritt has reworked some melodies, but regardless of the music, the 13th-century story of love, loyalty and the revenge of 300 murdered family members still resonates through the ages.

Poly Theatre. 7.30pm. Oct 14. 80-880RMB

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