A reminder of music’s universal reach

23:04, Oct 23 2014

Sheng Dong: A Moving Sound, Theatre Royal, Nelson Arts Festival,  Sunday night.

The privilege of experiencing a magical performance not seen here before reinforces the benefits offered by events like the Arts Festival that crank minds open to new worlds of creativity and expression.

The word ‘richness’ dominates in recalling that experience: a disciplined richness of sparkling colour, sound, movement, grace and passion, enhanced by great lighting.

 It was hard to believe at times that just four Taiwanese and one American artist were responsible for this.

The latter is composer Scott Prairie who met singer and dancer Mia Hsieh in New York and followed her home to Taiwan. Prairie composes their work, gives it to Hsieh (his wife) who adds her voice and movement then the other musicians add their bit.

When they first sat quietly in a row on stage, instrumentalists resplendent in traditional costume, we didn’t know what to expect but soon realised it was something special.

An introduction to the traditional erhu, a stick-like two-stringed instrument capable of an incredible range of haunting sound and effect, was a revelation at the hands of Yeh Wei-Jen (Allen).


Pan I Tung (Dabby) and Prairie, except for when the latter held an electric bass, played  instruments similar-looking to a wooden mandolin: the large, zhong ruan, and small, xiao ruan, could project the lightest shiver of notes or become rhythm guitar in a rock band.

Percussionist Liao Wei-Hsu, meanwhile, worked wonders with two small drums, a gong and selection of small items.

Led by the pure, remarkably high notes and graceful fluidity of Hsieh’s songs and movements, we were led on a mesmerising cross-over journey of musical art and storytelling that ranged from ancient ethnic pieces to powerful, contemporary rhythms and beats.

In some numbers we had both. Favourites were the contrast of poignant, reflective rhythms that powered up then down again in Silk Road, the gentle melodies of Ku Chin based on an ancient peace poem, and the dreamy, slow beat and vocal harmonies of The Water of Life.

While mainly Asian-influenced you could pick touches of other cultures here and there, reminders of music’s universal reach.

A meditative mantra and soft vocal accompanied only by the resonance of two singing bowls (bought in Dar es Salaam after meeting the Dali Lama), was an ethereal, standout moment.

A rocking encore asking Ganesh, the Indian elephant god, to bless us with strength, sent us invigorated on our way.

In 12 years the warm, spirited group has performed in 20 countries. After New Zealand concerts in Dunedin and Nelson they were off to Melbourne. Let’s hope they return soon and are appreciated by a wider audience.