Monday, 30 May 2011

A Heritage Journey: Elegance of Nanyin / Singapore Arts Festival 2011 / Review

Singapore Arts Festival 2011 / Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall / Saturday (28 May 2011)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 30 May 2011 with the title "Elegant ensemble of sound".

Nanyin, translated as “Southern music”, is an ancient musical tradition from the Southern Chinese province of Fujian. Referred to as a “living fossil”, its legacy of chamber music involves solo voice and a small assortment of instruments, performed by a small ensemble. How such a genre of diminutiveness and intimacy translated into a concert with a large group like the Singapore Chinese Orchestra was a bold experiment and labour of love.

Hong Kong-based composer Law Wai Lun had sympathetically incorporated Nanyin into a larger framework of a six-movement symphony. Lasting almost 80 minutes, the results were revelatory if not totally original.

The first movement, Splendour Of Erythrina City, featured the full orchestra with a stirring choral part sung by the Victoria Chorale and Vocal Consort, sounding like an Oriental version of Orff’s Carmina Burana. However their words were in Mandarin, rather than the authentic Minnanese (Hokkien) dialect, thus detracting from the original premise.

This was more than made up by the appearance of singer Li Bai Yan from the Quanzhou Nanyin Ensemble whose sleight of hand on two sibao (wooden clappers), shaken at two totally different rhythms, was matched by her pristine voice. Heard in the original tongue, the roots, heart and soul of Nanyin came to the fore unequivocally.

In The Magnificent Steeds, a steady gallop rhythm was maintained by the Quanzhou group, dressed in traditional costumes and seated at the highest point on the stage. Wang Da Hao on the dongxiao (a woodwind blown like the recorder) and Zeng Jia Yang on nanpa (a horizontally placed lute) were protagonists for this exquisitely poised and brilliantly paced music.

Through all this and the fourth movement Harmonious Court Music, which conductor Yeh Tsung humorously called “insect music”, the orchestra played sotto voce throughout, exerting an reassuring presence but never overwhelming the delicate balance of instrumental solos. Li’s ethereal voice returned for the fifth movement Celestial Sounds, where the use of echoes and chorus heightened its mystique.

Our nation’s definitive connection with Nanyin was most apparent in the finale Passing On The Ancient Flame, with the Siong Leng Musical Association playing a pivotal role. A song by its late Chairman Teng Mah Seng, Singapore’s foremost Nanyin exponent, was incorporated into the score and Lin Shaoling’s tenor lent a poignant counterpoint to Li’s. The music was decidedly more contemporary with an Indian tabla providing the driving impetus.

There was a grand apotheosis, but the muted ending seemed the more appropriate one. One male speaking voice in Hokkien emerged above a sea of babbling voices, intoning, “I am a Hokkien, so was my father,… and I could never be anybody else,” more or less summed up the sentiment. The journey of music across cultures was now complete.

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