Monday, 19 April 2010

Life and Death in the City / Yong Siew Toh Conservatory New Music Ensemble / Review

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory New Music Ensemble
Esplanade Recital Studio
Sunday (18 April 2010)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 20 April 2010.

The idea of musique concrete – the use of natural sounds mixed into a musical score - has been in existence for several decades, a technique often employed by the avant-garde movement. It made a definitive grand appearance in a concert by the Conservatory New Music Ensemble in works by Steve Reich and Mauricio Kagel conducted by SSO principal percussionist Jonathan Fox.

Reich’s City Life (1995) recently received its Singapore premiere some weeks ago by the same forces, and a second airing was equally welcome. If anything, the young performers displayed more confidence in tackling the thorny score that got increasingly frenetic and oppressive. Samples of street cries, pile-drivers, sirens, a fire engine and looped voices (a Reich specialty) were mixed within its five linked movements. The last, Heavy Smoke, used sounds from the scene of the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing, eerily foretelling the events of 911.

There was some relief provided by Malaysian Chong Kee Yong’s Liu Xu Fei (2001), a 6-minute work for oboe and cello inspired by Tang poetry. Oboist Wang Jin and cellist Pan Chang rendered their demanding intertwined soliloquys with much authority. The work was atonal for certain, but it had a strangely calming effect.

The largest work was the Argentine maverick Kagel’s “December 24, 1931” Garbled News (1991), which was also the zaniest. The date referred to his actual birthday, and each movement based on a news event that occurred on that day. Performed by just nine musicians, it seemed like a whole orchestra and the proverbial kitchen sink.

Sublime and ridiculous sat cheek by jowl in its seven movements, which included reports of a Buenos Aires jail revolt, Japanese atrocities in Manchuria, a Nazi cigarette commercial, a Vatican library accident, a migrant worker’s letter and Christmas chimes that failed. Reporting and singing the news in German was veteran baritone William Lim, whose deadpan yet theatrical delivery was a revelation.

The scoring was colourful, ingenious and often riotous. The final movement literally saw sparks fly from a car battery, an Ivesian collision of carillons and Lim’s own procession of “ding dongs” as he exited the stage. With persuasive performers like these, modern music at its most outlandish and irreverent looks likely to stay.

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