Crowds brave British summer for Liu Fang Jul 29 2004
By Graham Bond
River Stage, Sunday
Photo: Bob Rose (UK)

If there was one artist who didn't deserve to have her audience soaked with summer rain, or be drowned out by overbearing bass, it was Liu Fang. Unfortunately for the Chinese virtuoso, life isn't fair sometimes.

Wearing a traditional red Qi Pao and a flowing black dress, Liu took to the River Stage as heavy grey clouds gathered above the Rivermead. With her Pipa - the four-stringed Chinese lute - on her lap, she struck a lonely figure up on the small platform, playing farther back than usual to take cover from the wind, which whipped across the WOMAD site and sent the flags flapping.

The performance was classical in every sense, with Liu playing long solo pieces of dazzling complexity, each deploying an array of tempos and melodies. The audience clearly had classical credentials of its own, demonstrated by the fact each composition was applauded for upwards of a minute in true Proms style.

Draped in plastic and blankets, they were respectfully attentive and dared to show their appreciation only when Liu had broken from her musical trance, slowing opening her eyes and lifting her chin. Liu received the applause reluctantly with a shy smile and a bow of the head. The sense of levity was enhanced by the 30-year-old's short introductions to each 'piece' which tantalisingly hinted at the cultural depth of the music ("This song is about the fate of a general on the battlefield in 202BC").

Liu's left-hand contorted to form astonishing shapes over the wooden frets as her right-hand fingers worked in waves, stroking the strings with mesmerising speed. The flailing fingers inexplicably managed to pick out delicate bass and treble melodies. With the wind in her hair and eyes closed, Liu was the picture of composure and elegance.

The weather conditions did have an obvious downside. The crowd murmured its disapproval as spitting rain turned into a downpour and large numbers left when given their opportunity by a pause in the music. Emerging from a hypnotic 10-minute solo of staggering intensity, Liu demonstrated her immediate grasp of English culture by apologising for the rain. The departing spectators, with equal Englishness, glanced back over their shoulders' penitently. Yes, everyone was very sorry.

Aside from the sound technicians, who were the only ones who perhaps deserved to be apologetic. The delicate sound of Liu's Pipa wasn't complemented by thunderous levels of bass that escaped from the nearby Little Blue Tent, or by the regular crack of static interference on the PA system. It was probably the organisers' only mistake of the weekend but it was the worst time to make it. Liu's performance, after all, demanded revered silence, though one suspects the lady herself would not have been so immodest as to say so.

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