Tuesday, 3 November 2009

VCH Chamber Series / Spectrum: Cage + 5 / Review

VCH Chamber Series: Evening Potpourri
Victoria Concert Hall
Sunday (1 November 2009, 5 pm)
Spectrum: Cage + 5
Esplanade Recital Studio
Sunday (1 November 2009, 7.30 pm)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 3 November 2009.

Contemporary music appears to be winning over a growing audience, judging by the encouraging attendances at the weekend’s chamber concerts. If not, some consolation may be had that the hip image cultivated by the conductors, allied with strong musical values, seems to be drawing them in.

Darrell Ang (left), the epitome of new cool, helmed the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s chamber concert which was three-quarters modern. First, a J.S.Bach flute sonata, featuring Roberto Alvarez’s silvery tone, soothed the palate. Then the variegated textures of Benjamin Britten’s early Sinfonietta (Op.1) and Singaporean Kelly Tang’s atonal Wind Serenade took over.

The Britten was precocious with its use of bitty themes, developing into three varied movements contrasting strings and winds to marvelous effect, while the Tang was a model of concision and economy. Both paved the way for Aaron Copland’s popular ballet Appalachian Spring, written for Martha Graham, in its original version for 13 instruments. Ang’s quiet authority presided over a performance that mixed atmospheric slow moods with dances bursting with energy. It seemed a pity there were no dancers on stage.

The choreography at the Esplanade was provided by Kawai Shiu (left), the pony-tail sporting composer-conductor who directed the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory New Music Ensemble. His wide-ranging arm movements and gestures resembled some martial arts meister in pugilistic combat as the group mastered a series of treacherously thorny scores.

Again, a wealth of nuance, shade and rhythm defined the diverse music of Isang Yun (Korea), Wu Na (China), Douglas Knehans, Michael Torke (both USA) and Shiu (Hong Kong) himself. Some 32 years separated Yun’s Piece Concertante and Wu’s Culture’s Gift, but were united by a sense of nostalgia for their native cultures. The two Americans had a gift of pulse and kinetic impetus that propelled their music onward, while Shiu’s Three Seasons traversed from violence to an uneasy calm.

Instrumental virtuosity was at a premium throughout and if people needed convincing about the power of new music, that was provided in spades. The iconic John Cage’s Five Squared, performed by just five musicians, opened and closed the concert like some ceremonial ritual. That both identical performances sounded different seemed an uncanny illusion. The magic and chemistry about music is that over the 80 minutes or so, one’s mind had been irreversibly transformed.

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