Monday, 17 November 2008

Son Of Yellow River / Singapore Chinese Orchestra: Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
TSUNG YEH, Conductor
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (14 November 2008)

An edited version of this review appeared on The Straits Times on 17 November 2008.

Some things are lost in translation when an orchestra of Chinese instruments attempts to play Western music. This was never more evident in the first half of the SCO concert conducted by its Music Director Tsung Yeh (pictured below) featuring the renowned Chinese pianist Yin Cheng Zong. The opening work was Georges Bizet's L 'Arlesienne Suite No. 2, which lacked the necessary gravitas that a conventional Western symphony orchestra provides.

Yet the poignant flute solo in the 3rd movement Minuet was not missed, with the dizi as its successfully idiomatic replacement, beautifully accompanied by the harp. The bustling Farandole also reveled in its rhythmic glory, one easily achieved with percussion working overtime.

The experiment of performing Maurice Ravel's Piano Concerto in G Major on Chinese instruments was a refreshingly bold, but one that blended like oil and water. It ultimately failed on this count: the French composer had very specific sonorities and instruments in mind, one in which no Chinese substitutes could emulate or even simulate.

The exotic sound and atmosphere conjured - in its pentatonic finery - was well realised, but when wind and brass solos were called for, the effect sounded like a comical caricature. The suona could never take the place of an oboe, and in the tender cor anglais solo of the slow movement, the sheng sounded piercing rather than mellow. All the beautiful playing that pianist Yin could muster was negated as a result, and the resultant applause was embarrassingly short. It had stopped even before both pianist and conductor had left the stage.

The second half was much better, when these same instruments had free rein in 5 movements of Amorous Feelings For The Yellow River by Jing Jian Shu. The dizi duet, guan and suona soloists were excellent. Suona player Jin Shi Yi stole the show in his virtuoso role, which required extemporising bird sounds on the reeds. And to think they had all been strait-jacketed by the Ravel.
The title Son of Yellow River may sound like some playground taunt (try pronouncing it in Singlish, it sounds like "son of yellow liver"), but it refers to Yin Cheng Zong's part in the committee of five (from the Central Philharmonic Society in Beijing) that composed the ubiquitous Yellow River Concerto. Whatever one might think of this work, it is an undeniably effective showpiece, marrying memorable melodies with luscious pianism and Romantic rhetoric.
Yin is virtually peerless in his role as pianist-composer, lapping up every Tchaikovskyan octave fusillade, Lisztian cadenza and Rachmaninovian climax with relish. One almost forgets its patriotic and Socialist agenda amid the feel-good factor. Tumultuous applause and a standing ovation greeted its final chord, which brought on a repeat of a bleeding chunk from the finale, this time accompanied by rhythmic clapping from the audience à la Strauss' Radetzky March.
Egged on by conductor Yeh, it was for this reviewer a truly bizarre and cringe-worthy moment. Cheesy as this pseudo-Rachmaninov concerto might have been, I never thought it subject to or deserved this further indignity.
During the autograph signing, pianist Yin declined to autograph his recording of the Yellow River Concerto with the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra on the Hugo label. One wonders why. Was it issued without his permission or blessing? Was he disssatisfied with the result? Or did he not receive royalties from its release? The mind boggles.

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