Sunday, 24 July 2011

SCO Concert: Haochen's Yellow River / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
SCO Singapore Conference Hall
Friday (22 July 2011)

An edited version of this review was published in The Straits Times on 25 July 2011 with the title "Cheers for mountains and rivers".

This concert should perhaps been titled “Mountains and Rivers”, after all a piano concerto does not constitute a concert. The evening began with the world premiere of Eric Watson’s The Land Beneath the Wind, a programmatic symphonic poem about Sabah’s wild frontier.

An experienced orchestrator with Chinese instruments, his colourful score recounted its turbulent history and an atmospheric ascent on mighty Mount Kinabalu. Motifs resembling ethnic music were used and the work culminated with a frenetic celebratory dance.

Equally evocative was Wang Ning’s The Ancient Cadence of Gui Plain, its vastly varied three movements possessing the boldness of Chinese brushstrokes. The impressionist Goddess of Gui River saw Phang Thean Siong’s xiao (vertical flute) paint a dreamy and tranquil landscape, coloured by pipa and guzheng solos, and ethereal voices from keyboard synthesiser.

Pitched and unpitched percussion dominated Homes on the Ancient Cliff and Battling Drums in Banquan, the former a set of variations on a tribal dance and the latter a belligerent call to arms which resonated with a strident ferocity.

The Yellow River (Huang He), often referred to as “China’s sorrow” was the subject of the second half. Cheng Da Chao’s Yellow River Rhapsody was in the familiar slow-fast bipartite form, but it was no copy of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies. Its use of dissonances pitting strings and winds depicted a legacy of toil and tribulation. An ocarina-like blown instrument was the avatar of long-suffering river boatmen, while the dizi spelt their optimism in a vigorous dance to close.

It is perhaps a sign of the times that young Zhang Haochen has never performed the Yellow River Piano Concerto, sine qua non of all Chinese pianists, prior to this. This patriotic potboiler was emblematic of all things Chinese (and socialist) despite blatantly copying the Western Romantic piano idiom of such capitalists as Liszt, Chopin and Rachmaninov.

No matter, the most recent winner of the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition gave a no holds barred account, stamping every note, octave and chord with an emphatic vehemence. Besides the requisite showboating, he also enveloped each lyrical episode, however rare, with a velvet touch.

A solo recital would surely reveal his true abilities, but on this occasion, fearless bravura had won the day. Egged on by vociferous applause and a highly enthused conductor Yeh Tsung, the finale was encored to more cheers.

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