Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Singapore Chinese Orchestra Concert: Folklore and Legends / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
CHOO HOEY, Conductor
Singapore Conference Hall
Saturday (21 February 2009)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 23 February 2009.
It was unfortunate that the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s founding Music Director Choo Hoey did not feature in the orchestra’s landmark 30th anniversary season. Thankfully the Singapore Chinese Orchestra picked up the slack, landing the 75-year-old maestro with a pair of concerts at the very venue and stage where he conducted SSO’s first concerts in 1979.

Choo (left) fed the young SSO a steady diet of Chinese orchestral music, paving its way as an ensemble adept in both Eastern and Western idioms. It was also Choo who recruited former Menuhin prodigy Jin Li (below) as SSO first violinist. The reunion was relived in The Legend Of Luhuitou, a concertante work for violin and orchestra.

This programmatic work about the romance between a deer-turned-maiden and her Hainanese stalker turned out to be a poor cousin of the Butterfly Lovers Concerto. Its mix of Chinese melodies and Western devices could have been exploited to the hilt, but its clichĂ©-ridden 20 minutes of tawdriness was only saved by Jin’s considerable but understated virtuosity.

The balance of the 2-hour concert was a musical geographical tour, opening with Festoon Drum Of Fengyang based on Anhui folksongs and featuring an improvisational section for percussion. Kwok Hang Kei’s Impressions Of Russian Folk Song was a medley – Two Guitars, Kamarinskaya and Kalinka included - with strummed strings simulating a band of balalaikas.

The home countries were not neglected. Qian Zhou Xi’s Impressions Of Malaysia utilised Iban (Dayak) melody and rhythm, sounding exotic even for Chinese ears. However Former SCO Deputy Conductor Qu Chun Quan’s Reverie At The Statue Of Sir Stamford Raffles (see below) qualified as the least original work on show.

Shamelessly ripping off SuppĂ©’s Light Cavalry Overture in its opening fanfare, peppering it with fragments of Zubir Said’s Majulah Singapura (The National Anthem) and trying to sound like a local version of Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien, it was anything but a reverie. It was more like a musical nightmare. Was it a total surprise that it climaxed with National Day Parade and Sing Singapore favourite Singapura, with “beautiful flowers blooming for you and me”?

The best music was left for the last, ironically from the pens of Percy Grainger and Malcolm Arnold. The pentatonic strains of Molly On The Shore and Four Scottish Dances respectively translated very well for the Chinese instruments. The latter’s Allegretto with its flute melody sounding particularly Oriental was so beautifully rendered that it was generously encored.

In reality, despite Choo and SCO’s spirited advocacy, little else deserved to be heard for a second time.

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