Tuesday, 5 April 2011

STRINGS OF TIME / Guitar Ensemble of NUS 30th Anniversary Concert / Review

Guitar Ensemble of NUS 
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall 
Sunday (3 April 2011)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 5 April 2011 with the title "Guitars show versatility".

The Guitar Ensemble of University of Singapore (GENUS) celebrated its 30th anniversary in a concert that demonstrated how far the humble guitar, still widely regarded as a folk instrument, has come.

Guitar ensemble playing took root in Singapore in the mid-1980s when Alex Abisheganaden purchased a set of Niibori guitars for the University. Divided into sections according to their registers, these would function like a symphony orchestra, led by a conductor. Abisheganaden’s own Huan Ying Vannakan (1995), featuring erhu and sitar soloists, was one of the more traditional pieces performed, where Chinese and Indian melodies fused into one indivisible whole.

Electric guitars dominated their acoustic cousins for Phunk Experiments (above) by Alvin Ng and Calista Lee of NUS Electronic Music Lab. Their popular idiom contrasted wildly with Masatoshi Ishizuka’s Nagashino, a battle piece that could have been mistaken for some soundtrack for a spaghetti Western. That was until Guan Boon Cheng’s poignant shinobue (Japanese flute) solo punctuated the air before tubular bells heralded the end.

Spanish music and Flamenco dancers were the mainstay for the second half, which made music from the Disney animated movie Beauty and the Beast seem redundant. The dancers from Flamenco Sin Fronteras simply stole the show in Geronimo Gimenez’s La Boda de Luis Alonso (The Wedding, above) and Ravel’s Bolero (below), gyrating ever so gracefully to the highly rhythmic music.

The two most interesting pieces were performed last. Balraj Gopal’s Satyagraha, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy, was a reflective look at life’s values and vicissitudes. Its blend of old and new did not go as well as planned, largely because of a malfunctioning electric guitar (or guitarist?) that either failed to cue or went off pitch. The performance was saved by Gopal’s mridangam and wonderful flute and oboe solos from Ow Leong San.

Conductor Robert Casteels’s Garden of Life and Death (above) was a full scale drama in which guitars served as evocative accompanists. Antiphonal trumpets opened the ritual of blood and death, pitting man (Chang Hsiao Min’s matador) against beast (Antonio Vargas’s bull) which played out to its inevitable conclusion. Seldom has gracefulness and brutality in scoring and choreography been juxtaposed this eloquently on the same stage. The disturbing message was this: who was the greater victim?

More importantly, whoever thought that guitars could be this versatile?


edwardcornelius said...

One of the electric guitar strings snapped during Satyagraha. It was a Floyd Rose Bridge so when a string broke, the rest would go out of tune.

chua said...

The last piece by Dr. Casteels left the greatest impact on me. The sheer intensity of the work took me right out of the relaxed comfortable mood I was slowly settling into throughout the rest of the concert, leaving me breathless at the end. Very engaging.

Chang Tou Liang said...

Thanks for the clarification, Ed. And all the best for the forthcoming recording, and we can all hear how good Raj's work actually is!

edwardcornelius said...

Yeah it's really an awesome piece and I knew how everybody had worked really hard for that song, so I decided to not give up on the song when the accident happened and continued fighting with 5 out of tune strings although I had to keep re-tuning and improvising.
Yup thanks and will do my best for the recording :)