Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Modern Icons: Dream Worlds / Review

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory New Music Ensemble
Chan Tze Law, Conductor
Esplanade Recital Studio
Sunday (5 April 2009, 7.30pm)
This review was published in The Straits Times on 7 April 2009.

The fourth concert by the Conservatory’s New Music Ensemble was the longest in its ongoing series, but one touched by an uncanny symmetry. One initially wondered what contemporary composers like Singapore’s Phoon Yew Tien, Luciano Berio, Andrew Schultz, Liza Lim and Brett Dean had in common. However as the programme unfolded, and with ears opened like never before, the logic of sound and sense soon became apparent.

Luciano Berio’s Chemins II (composer pictured left)was an expansion of his iconic Sequenza VI (1967) for solo viola. A highly virtuosic work, it is a study in repetition, with its multiple short variations constantly resonating and evolving without remission. Although fiercely avant-garde, its frequent changes in colour, dynamics and textural patterns proved strident yet hypnotic. The excellent violist Jiang Hansong was the obvious centre of focus, but it was his hardworking ensemble colleagues whose vital support proved pivotal for the performance’s success.

Phoon Yew Tien’s Variants On Kuan San Yue (1988, revised 2008, left) worked on a similar principal, but with an ancient Chinese melody deconstructed and distributed to different instrumental parts and groups. Mosaic-like, these fragments of sounds and harmonies coalesced and resounded in a variegated patchwork that was both satisfying and appealing. Between these was Australian Andrew Schultz’s Septet No.2: Circle Ground (1995), which had the most reassuring tonal allure, one recalling minimalist and New Age idioms.

The idea of dreams dominated the second half, in works by two other Australian composers. Liza Lim’s Songs Found In Dream (2005) was inspired by Aboriginal mythology and rituals, but had the aural quality of a nightmare. Its mélange of seemingly random scrapes and squeaks are precisely what gives new music its undeserved reputation of audio-nasties.

Brett Dean’s Dream Sequence (2008, left) however developed an inexorable arch-like sense of flow, from the depths of somnolence through the apparent violence of the subconscious (how many of us have not had disturbing dreams?), finally dissipating into gentle arousal. Its deft use of orchestral devices included a first ever use of a copy of The Straits Times as a percussion instrument!

In its short 18 months, the Conservatory’s forum of new music under its chief proselytizer Chan Tze Law has grown from an audience of merely 30 people to one nearly filling the capacity of Esplanade Recital Studio. Long may that trend continue.
Footnote: Another serendipitous point of symmetry: Phoon Yew Tien and Brett Dean were classmates.

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