MELODIES OF GUZHENG / Singapore Chinese Orchestra
SCO Singapore Conference Hall / Saturday (16 April 2011)
In an effort to reach out to new listeners, the Singapore Chinese Orchestra has invested in a Casual Classical series of concerts. The formula is simple: focus on one Chinese instrument, invite a local media celebrity and performs lots of light music. The result was a resounding success because of its inclusiveness and lack of pretence.
The familiar face this evening was actor-director Adrian Pang (below) playing the emcee role. Although his English was more fluent than his Mandarin, aided by a smattering of colloquial Hokkien, his intentions were always clear. He narrated in Kuan Nai Chung’s Instrumental Guide To The Chinese Orchestra, modelled on Benjamin Britten’s popular classic, The Young Person’s Guide.
The various solo instruments performed variations on the popular Jiangsu song Molihua (Jasmine), highlighting the individual prowess of orchestral virtuosos. Despite a gaffe by Pang, which resulted in the orchestra coming to a complete halt, and conductor Yeh Tsung intervening on behalf of the erhus, the good-naturedness of all concerned saved the day.
Pang more than made up by crooning three songs in English, Gershwin’s Summertime (Porgy & Bess) somewhat tentatively, Kurt Weill’s Mack The Knife (Threepenny Opera) with plenty of swing, and Henry Mancini’s Moon River (Breakfast At Tiffany’s). W.C.Handy’s St Louis Blues and Bernstein’s West Side Story selections, the latter sounding a tad anaemic beside the Western orchestra version, closed the evening’s variegated fare. Still, one hasn’t lived until having heard the melody Somewhere played on the sheng.
The true star of the evening was young guest guzheng player Liu Le (above) from Changsha. Performing with a masterly authority that belied his 25 years, Liu’s control of the plucked zither-like instrument was absolute. In the solo piece Zhao Deng Shan’s Temple Chimes, the slow, long held tones echoed sonorously, hinting at the avant-garde. In Liu’s own Dream of Sleeves, its part-fantasy and part-improvisation form idiomatically combined both traditional and contemporary styles. It was sheer pleasure witnessing arpeggios on the left hand, melody and tremolos on the right hand and further inner voices shared by both thumbs.
The first half’s masterclass was completed by Liu Wen Jin’s concerto Angel of the Scroll, where the sparse orchestration of strings and percussion allowed the guzheng’s voice to shine unhindered. It was a measure of this young man’s stature that despite the work ending quietly, his artistry remained the abiding memory.