Sunday, 8 August 2010

SINGAPORE CHINESE ORCHESTRA Opening Gala: Jazz You Up / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Singapore Conference Hall
Friday (6 August 2010)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 9 August 2010.

For the Singapore Chinese Orchestra’s Opening Gala of the 2010-11 season, local jazz great Jeremy Monteiro held sway like a colossus. His imprimatur as composer, arranger and piano virtuoso was to be ever present at this unusual but highly engaging concert.

Ironically it was the first few minutes – Monteiro’s Overture in C major: The Story of Singapore – which proved the least convincing. Its Coplandesque opening gestures, drumming rhythms and ethnic motifs, later giving way to National Day Parade favourite One People, One Nation, One Singapore, went down like oil and water.

It was when Monteiro eventually emerged to perform his Olympia that the evening truly began. Improvisation is the heart of jazz. Eric Watson’s arrangement offered grateful parts to Yu Jia and Sunny Wong on the pipa and erhu respectively, before Monteiro wrapped up with riffs of his own.

Where does structured composition end and improvisation begin, was a question asked of local serious composer Kelly Tang (left) in his latest piano concerto, wittily-titled Montage. Cast in three movements, his use of the Chinese orchestra was sparing to the point that the ensemble operated mostly from the peripheries while Monteiro’s trio (with bassist Christy Smith and drummer Tama Goh, below) dominated centrestage.

The slow movement, a nocturne for piano and Zhao Jian Hua’s lovely erhu, luxuriated with Chopin-like radiance and Mozartian clarity. The rhythmic exuberance of the finale, where instrumental balance was again problematic, however swept the board with its sheer energy. Plaudits go to Tang for daring to experiment (his earlier piano concerto was atonal), and this genre is well-worth exploring further.

Conductor Yeh Tsung (left) doubled up ad-hoc emcee, proselytising as slickly as a tele-evangelist. With good reason, as in Monteiro’s Asiana, more of SCO’s soloists had their moment in the spotlight. Yin Zhi Yang and Tan Chye Tiong on dizi, Xu Hui’s all-too brief guzheng solo all shone, while the excellent Han Lei whose guanzi could have easily been Kenny G’s saxophone. Kong Hong Wei’s Summer Palace, also with Han, provided the token piece of chinoiserie.

Tony Makarome’s arrangement of Victor Feldman’s Seven Steps To Heaven closed a lively evening, not before Tama Goh’s wild drummer act brought down the house. Monteiro, who could pass off as Fred Flintstone’s twin, offered the theme from The Flintstones as an encore. Cartoon music at the SCO? Notch up a new first for the record books.