A Second Farewell to Cambridge

Tenor Bo Wang tells IAM how his latest project successfully combines Western choral music with Chinese poetry

I was born in China and now I am living in London. After graduating in Beijing with a degree in music education, I studied opera in the UK at the Royal Northern College of Music. Since then I have sung with English National Opera, Garsington Opera, British Youth Opera, Opera Holland Park, BBC Proms and at other music festivals in Europe and China.

I have always enjoyed choral music, especially as performed by King’s College Choir (KCC), and I was delighted to be asked by Zilan Wang, the director of Cam Rivers Publishing, to attend an audition in Cambridge last summer. Luckily I was successful, and the choir hired me to perform as tenor on new composition Second Farewell to Cambridge, which features on their latest album (released in January 2018).

What was it like working with such an historic choir? The music environment at KCC is so warm and stimulating, and it was a real privilege for me to work with the choir director, Stephen Cleobury, and the composer, John Rutter. The piece I recorded was written for solo tenor, flute and choir and brings the poem Second Farewell to Cambridge vividly to life. Written by the Chinese poet Xu Zhimo, after his time studying at Cambridge in the early 1920s, it is known and loved by many people in China.

Bo Wang @ KCC
Bo Wang @ KCC

Rutter’s score serves this famous poem very imaginatively at different levels. It has a diversity of rich colours, which KCC’s beautiful singing highlights with both warmth and depth. This is the first time the choir has sung in Mandarin, which is hard to believe as their diction is so clear, well articulated and precise. Indeed, the choir brings out the colours in the music superbly ranging from sweet highs to melancholic lows. It’s an impressive performance.

The choir, flute and tenor voice blend naturally, helped of course by the decision to record the music in the chapel of King’s College with its clear, sharp acoustics. The music has been written in the classical Western tradition but seamlessly incorporates elegant Chinese music modes and the strong traditions of Chinese poetry. The overall effect is to make the connection between the poet Xu Zhimo and Cambridge – the place he fell in love with – even more poignant and romantic.

Xu Zhimo was keen to loosen Chinese poetry from its traditional forms and link it more closely to Western ideas. Rutter’s composition continues this work and, I believe, adds something new to both traditions.

Xu Zhimo’s stay at King’s College was commemorated by the installation of a stone of white Beijing marble in 2008 at the back of the college by the River Cam. Now, this new composition gives a similar commemoration to his best-known poem. It links poet and place firmly for all time: truly a second farewell to Cambridge!

John Rutter and Stephen Cleobury © KCC
John Rutter and Stephen Cleobury © KCC

Since the album was released in China in January the reaction has been very positive: I’ve had some lovely feedback from many people in the country. My parents of course loved their son’s work, but more surprising is the fact that they and their friends have learned to sing it themselves!

Having the chance to be the first to interpret a major new work by John Rutter has been such an enriching experience, especially because it combined Western operatic technique with Chinese folk singing traditions. Being a part of this recording is without doubt the highlight of my career to date.

Looking ahead, I will join the Iford Arts Festival New Generation Young Artists Programme in the summer and then in the autumn I am touring to China with KCC to promote the album. I’m really looking forward to this experience, and the chance to work with such a wonderful choir again.

Bo Wang is a tenor based in the UK. Second Farewell to Cambridge was released in January 2018. Wang and KCC will tour China later this year.

bowangtenor.com | kings.cam.ac.uk/choir