Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Two World Premieres by Two Singaporean Composers

HO CHEE KONG Shades of Oil Lamps
Singapore Festival Orchestra (14 June 2008)
London Sinfonietta (21 June 2008)
Esplanade Concert Hall

Two Singaporean composers received world premieres of their commissioned orchestral works at this year’s Singapore Arts Festival.

Tan Chan Boon, 43, who teaches musical theory and composition privately, already has four full-length symphonies under his belt. None of these have been performed in their entirety in Singapore. Cherish, an 8-minute “prelude for orchestra” with an ecological message, gave a short glimpse of the enormity of his symphonic visions and cathedral-like sonorities.

Moved by mankind’s desecration of Gaia, the music opened quietly with a low heaving Wagnerian groan accompanied by eerie string glissandi. A trombone chorale perforating the calm suggested the spiritual and quasi-Oriental sound world of Armenian-American composer Alan Hovhaness. The conflict of man and Nature brought up the decibel factor briefly but resolution was to be found in a broad lingering melody which dominated the work’s latter half, reminding this listener of the Afro-American spiritual Deep River.

Tan’s Cherish isn’t just a symphonic slow movement, but a microcosm of a possible fifth symphony. The Singapore Festival Orchestra, led by Chan Tze Law, was ever sensitive to the music’s nuances and dynamics, delivering a very satisfying reading that makes one want to hear much more of Tan’s music.

Shades of Oil Lamps by Ho Chee Kong, 45, composition professor at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, was scored for just nine musicians. Its subject is a 1960s and 70s itinerant roadside story-teller who keeps his audience entranced with his spun yarns. Ho’s music is similarly captivating with its transparency of scoring, piquant instrumental colour and sheer dynamism. Beginning with the “tick-tock” of the temple block and a sinuous flute solo that begins the tale, familiar and well-loved aromas begin to fill the senses.

Members of the London Sinfonietta conducted by veteran avant-gardist Diego Masson, all virtuoso soloists in their own right, performed one to a part. Their mastery of individual lines and as an ensemble was impeccable, delivering a performance that could scarcely be bettered. An unmistakable Oriental feel, with its scales and modes, permeated the work, which took flight into a land of fantasy and imaginary personages before its abrupt ending. Like the afore-mentioned story-teller (and Scheherazade, folklore’s most famous) who leaves his listeners dangling at the climax, one is left yearning for more.

Credit goes to National Arts Council for commissioning these memorable works, which amply demonstrate the fertile imagination of Singapore composers, mastery of their art and a burning desire to communicate. Bravissimo!

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