Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Elaine Chang with the Kaohsiung City Symphony Orchestra / Review

Elaine Chang and the
Kaohsiung City Symphony Orchestra
Hsiao Pang-Hsing, Conductor
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saunday (26 April 2009)

This reviewer has had the fortune of hearing the Kaohsiung City Symphony Orchestra twice. The first was almost exactly eleven years ago, in Taiwan’s southern port city itself while enjoying a spot of R&R (rest and recreation) from the rigors of overseas army in-camp-training. The ensemble in an all-Russian programme of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, I noted, was raw but enthusiastic.

This same orchestra, albeit pared-down, graced the Esplanade in a charity concert in aid of the Buddhist Tzi Chi Foundation that showcased popular classics and accompanying well-known Taiwanese songbird Elaine Chang (aka Zhang Xing Yue).

Conductor Hsiao Pang-Hsing’s idiomatic handling of a selection of Brahms Hungarian Dances, Dvorak Slavonic Dances and excerpts from Bizet’s Carmen and L’Arlesienne Suites was allied by much spirited playing. Apart from an excellent oboist who had a lion’s share of solos, the woodwinds in a group tended to sound anaemic - like some school band - while brass occasionally wild and over-exuberant.

The main draw was the diva herself (left), who sported four glitzy changes of outfits and gowns and entertained with a variety of Chinese songs – including folksongs, spiritual / inspirational songs and popular Taiwanese oldies. Although amplified, her delivery exuded a wide range of expressions and nuances, with the dramatic and bittersweet qualities – as evoked in Yue Qin, Siziwan Bay and a horse-inspired number – coming through particular convincingly.

She also caused a stir of recognition and nostalgia in songs sung in the Hokkien dialect – once discouraged in Speak Mandarin Campaigns of the past. The song loosely translated as You Are Spring And Flowers (Li Si Chun Ti Pun Si Huei) was so authentic as to be hard to resist. The orchestrations were of anodyne Hollywood quality, the sort to be heard in spaghetti Westerns and B-grade romances but no matter, it never threatened to overwhelm Chang and her love duets with tenor Chu Hung-Chang, who sung mostly in the baritone register.

Even the encores had a touch of idiosyncracy: a Taiwanese insect-inspired song (arranged in the style of a John Sousa and Leroy Anderson march) that got the audience clapping along; Chang returning in a Hokkien song about the moon above (Ti Teng Ei Gueh Neo) – excellently rendered - and a rather inimitable version of Memory from Cats. One question: What language was she singing in?

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