Monday, 26 July 2010

SOUNDS OF MASTER / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (24 July 2010)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 26 July 2010.

The “master” in this awkwardly-titled concert was indisputably the 71-year-old pianist Liu Shikun. A living legend among Chinese musicians, Liu was runner-up to Van Cliburn at the 1958 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition. Unlike the glamourous American, Liu is still performing and very much on top of his game.

The two concertos he performed were cut from the same canvas that produced the infamous but wildly popular (among the Chinese) Yellow River Concerto. Wang Chang Yuan’s Battling The Typhoon was originally scored for guzheng, but transcribed by Liu as a virtuoso piano vehicle. In its orchestral guise, the single movement of flying arpeggios, stampeding octaves and lyrical moments resembled a shanghaied Warsaw Concerto on steroids.

Liu upped the ante in the Youth Piano Concerto (1958), a melodious pastiche cobbled up by Liu and his four-member committee, possibly modeled on the Soviet Kabalevsky’s 1954 work of the same title. Obviously crafted for proletariat tastes and the lowest common denominator, its wafer thin material belied a performance of swashbuckling and grandstanding bravura.

And how the audience roared its approval, amply rewarded with the finale of the Yellow River Concerto (in a solo version) and the final apotheosis from the Youth Concerto as encores. Liu, Communist cadre turned capitalist entrepreneur (judging by the number of piano schools he owns and runs in China), had come good post-Cultural Revolution.

The other works on the programme conducted by SCO Music Director Yeh Tsung (left) also merited attention. Chang Ping’s Orchestra Concerto was an excellent overture, exploiting colours of Chinese instrumental groups while buzzing like Smetana’s Bartered Bride Overture. Wang Dan Hong’s Colourful Jiang Nan, effectively a concerto grosso for erhu, dizi and pipa, was in reality a musical postcard. The three soloists from the SCO played sensitively and with much tonal beauty.

The most interesting pieces were Liu Chang Yuan’s Variations Of Emotion and Guo Wen Jing’s Riyue Mountain. In the former, Han Lei’s exquisite guan solo was subject to an inventive set of orchestral variations, working its way from very slow to very fast before making a welcome return. The latter was an evocative symphonic poem, replete with modern dissonances, suggesting that the composer was familiar with Shostakovich’s passacaglias.

This well-attended concert proved, if anything, that contemporary Chinese music had more to offer beyond a gigantic song and dance.

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