China National Traditional Orchestra at Sadler’s Wells

Grand orchestral music leaves our reviewer, Bonnie Buyuklieva, stunned and impressed with China National Traditional Orchestra’s production ‘Xuanzang’s Pilgrimage’ at Sadler’s Wells.

There’s only one word that can be used to describe the musical performance of the China National Traditional Orchestra (CNTO) latest piece Xuanzang’s Pilgrimage: epic. Imagine a cross-over of Ramin Djawadi’s opening score for Game of Thrones and James Horner’s ‘Hymn To The Sea’ – yes, that calibre of epic. Composer, writer and director Jian Ying was wise to pick the pilgrimage of a well-known Buddhist monk from the 600s as the plot of the show. This is a fascinating classic, unknown to a western audience in its original form Journey to the West, the first in a quartet of novels from 16thc China. Although the musical quality of the 15-piece repertoire was an extravaganza for the ears, it was not quite a treat for the other senses.

China National Traditional Orchestra’s Xuanzang’s Pilgrimage at Sadler’s Wells, courtesy of China National Traditional Orchestra.

Describing the show as a musical performance is key; calling it a ‘musical drama’, as it does in the programme, is a stretch when the ensemble of stage, music and plot was far from coherent. It was enough to constitute a grand concert, but not when laying claim to theatrical merit. This was the case least because of the awkward breaks between pieces, where one could hear the musicians scurry behind the scenes to appear as extras on stage. (Arguably sloppy stage management did have its endearing moments though, when one noticed the musician-turned-monk had left his wedding ring on). The lackadaisical approach to the audience experience was evident from the offset with the spoken introduction. To my ears it sounded like a stiff disclaimer; however, there was no way of knowing if this was the case unless you spoke Chinese (no translation was offered).

China National Traditional Orchestra’s Xuanzang’s Pilgrimage at Sadler’s Wells, courtesy of China National Traditional Orchestra.

Thankfully, the rest of the piece was translated. Unfortunately, the dialogue was not a strong point. When the music ceased, the dialogue felt overly long and theatrical, and the subtitles were clumsy at times, although that could be overlooked considering this was a translation of a 16th century Chinese text. What was harder to swallow, however, was the use of digital media for the visuals. Although these were mostly pleasant projections in pastel colours, the use of a 3D CGI eagle to carrying a cropped video image of the protagonist monk was simply too much. This highlighted the inconsistency of the visual style, which was a shame given Fang Xia’s generously fine, yet lavish costume choice. Such inconsistencies were unfair to the musicians, as they prevented the audience from being fully immersed in the music. Despite all this, Ying’s performance showed a large range of Chinese traditional music that included the Arab-reminiscent tones of the Tajik ethnic group from the north-west. This gave an unexpected middle-eastern flavour to a Buddhist story.

China National Traditional Orchestra’s Xuanzang’s Pilgrimage at Sadler’s Wells, courtesy of China National Traditional Orchestra.

The disconnect between the action on stage and the auditory grandeur could possibly have been remedied by bringing the musicians on stage. The best pieces in the show did this. For example, in ‘Gaochang’ the scene begins conveniently with a banquet where different instruments are presented. The most successful renditions were ‘Pure Land’, ‘Dreamlike’, and ‘Tang’. These included a substantial part of the orchestra on stage in costumes and with headpieces. Just this and a simple screen made those three songs a fitting feast for the eyes.

The China National Traditional Orchestra’s Xuanzang’s Pilgrimage was shown at Sadler’s Wells from the 20th – 22nd of July. For more information on the show, click here:

Bonnie Buyuklieva has a background in architecture from the Bauhaus University in Weimar, Germany, and is currently researching cities for her PhD. She did interviews and was on the editorial team of “HORIZONTE - Journal for Architectural Discourse". Bonnie also writes for London Student’s arts section and contributes to the Global Lab Podcast. Her interests are in STEM, design and dance. For more information, please contact Bonnie via email:

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