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Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

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Laura Sinnerton Laura Sinnerton | 10:28 UK time, Friday, 11 May 2012

One of my favourite places in London is the National Portrait Gallery; I genuinely could spend the best part of a day there. I love starting with the really early portraits and moving through to the most contemporary. It never ceases to amaze me how our western idea of beauty has changed - in terms of physical beauty, fashion, and style.

With music it is very much the same. What was down with the kids in Bach's time was so out of vogue by Beethoven's time that it was almost fashionable again.

This year's Vale of Glamorgan Festival has highlighted works that have not just challenged what I see as 'good' music or 'not so good' music by the yardstick of our western sensibilities, but has also made me question what I believe to be beautiful in music.

One of the works by Qigang Chen, Iris Devoilée, mixes traditional Chinese instruments with our traditional western orchestral instruments, and mixes a voice of the Beijing Opera with two western operatic singers.

In rehearsal, the first entry of the Beijing Opera soprano was really quite a shock. This is singing like nothing found in the western canon, but that does not mean it has not its own beauty. The range is quite unique, the form of ornamentation completely alien to our ears, and the tone is very different from the carefully crafted, rounded tones considered desirous and beautiful by western operatic singing.

Once you allow your ear to grow accustomed to the Beijing style however, it is eerily expressive and other worldly, in a way not often found on the stages of our great opera houses. For this alone, I think Friday's concert is worth a nosey!

Also featured in this work are three traditional Chinese instruments - the pipa, the ehru and the zheng. The one that looks a little like a skinny, stunted cello is my favourite: the ehru. I cannot for the life of me figure out where all the sound comes from that it manages to produce; unlike the big resonating chamber of a cello, or viola, it has instead this little barrel-like structure. Years ago, in Cambodia I tried my hand (exceptionally unsuccessfully) at a similar Khmer instrument, called a tro, and I can confirm that not only is it very difficult to play in tune, but it is also very difficult to make a beautiful sound.

Thankfully for all concerned, I shall be sticking to the viola for this concert. We will also be performing Chen's Reflect d'un Temps Disparu for solo cello and orchestra, with soloist Li-Wei Qin. This piece has lots of interesting effects for the strings.

The concert will also feature another work by Philip Glass, The Olympian (it is, in fact, an Olympian effort to get all the repeat bars and da capos and 'go to the codas' right) and Iris by Per Nørgärd.

The Vale of Glamorgan Festival closes tonight (Friday 11 May) with a concert by the Orchestra at BBC Hoddinott Hall, 7pm. For tickets and more information, call 03700 101051.

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