Thursday, 20 November 2008

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory New Music Ensemble Concert: Magic Moments / Review

Yong Slew Toh Conservatory New Music Ensemble

Chan Tze Law, Conductor
Esplanade Recital Studio
Tuesday (11 November 2008)
This review was published in The Straits Times on 13 November 2008

Attending a concert of new music, so-called avant-garde music, is much like a walk through an exhibition of modern art. One usually does not know what to expect, and when art hits, it does so with a sense of the amazement that leaves one reeling and asking, "What was that?"

The third of the conservatory's New Music Ensemble concerts was without doubt its most challenging for the audience. When what the traditional listener treasures as melody and harmony are desperately short in supply, the ear strains for other points of reference, like rhythm and sound colour. New music challenges the mind to take these further steps into the unknown, and discover new and hitherto untrodden territory.
The path is made more accessible when the composer communicates with openness and sincerity. American-Singaporean John Sharpley (left), in his experimental A Fantasy's Dream (1984), provides moments of aural beauty and reassuring harmony amid the sea of uncertain tonality and seeming thematic randomness. Despite being a continent away, his appearance for a short quip on video added a friendly familiarity.

Conductor Chan Tze Law's illustrations of pages from various scores also eased the swallowing of a pill that did not turn out as bitter as previously thought. Gerard Grisey's Periodes (1974) passed like a minimalist test pattern with its repeated textures which ambled towards terminal stasis. The late Karlheinz Stockhausen's Dr K-Sextett (1969) was pointillist, except that the points were distantly spaced, its silences as mystifying as the blotches of notes that were uttered.

By the time Pierre Boulez's Derive (1984) arrived, the ensemble of six sounded positively warm and fuzzy, despite its wall of relentless pulses and later fragments. Young Singaporean Diana Soh's Stolen Moments (2008) followed in the same vein, where whole passages of jazzy wind motifs lit up a near-barren canvas like sepia photos in an old volume.

French-based Chinese composer Chen Qigang's Extase II (1997), an oboe concerto in all but name, fell like proverbial manna from heaven, where its undisguised Chinese roots struck a clearly sympathetic chord with all present. Oboist Xue Shunjie was the excellent and fearless soloist, whose simulation of the suona not only sounded authentic but convincing.

All the paraphernalia of modernity were present, but melody, interesting harmonies and textures, clearly defined themes, a forward sense of drive, and a committed performance made this a quite enthralling journey. These are the very elements which make much of music — new or otherwise - well worth returning to.

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