Monday, 22 August 2011


Singapore Chinese Orchestra
SCO Singapore Conference Hall
Friday (19 August 2011)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 22 August 2011 with the title "Happy 15th birthday, SCO".

The Opening Gala celebrating the Singapore Chinese Orchestra’s 15th anniversary, conducted by Music Director Yeh Tsung, reverberated with the insistent beat of percussion. This was not the common garden lion dance variety, but something far more sophisticated. The guest soloists were the four percussionists from China’s Eight Mallets Percussion Group, who proved that the scope of unpitched percussion is only limited by one’s imagination.

The fantastic foursome (below) performed unaccompanied and with various orchestral combinations to serve up a sumptuous if ear-splitting feast. At its simplest, La Gua – a classic of Kiangchow drumming tradition – pitted the quartet in mimicry of people gossiping, from monologue, dialogue to all four at once. It was a tour de force of synchronisation, with not a single beat out of step, which might make one think of Steve Reich.

In Mynah’s Bath and Havoc In Heavenly Palace, the riot of sound featured a duel and race between two cymbal players in the former, and in the latter, a posse of seven percussionists in a re-enactment of the Monkey God’s thrashing of the celestial realms.

If one wondered what mileage may be gotten from shaking a python-skin Chinese tambourine, Ma Li (below left) coolly showed the way in Ehmetjan Qasimi’s Harvest. In Night Thoughts, arranged by Li Min Xiong, long uninterrupted stretches of Wang Jian Hua (below right) striking the dagu (taiko drum) elicited from the audience the same kind of applause usually reserved for jazz drummers.

There was much more besides. Eric Watson’s Sea – The Source Of Life opened the concert, a homage not to water per se but various seafaring cultures, from Asia to the Caribbean. Portfolio of Chinese Instrumental Pieces by Xu Jing Xin sounded far better than the unappetising title suggested, a kaleidoscopic view of different Chinese musical cultures, each showcasing separate instrumental groups, as indicated by cardinal points on the compass.

Wang Dan Hong’s Strings On Yangko Dance was probably the best work, with Jin Shi Yi’s unforgettable suona solos evoking pangs of nostalgia and sorrow paradoxically even as a harvest is being celebrated. Nine percussionists came together for the final work, Liu Chang Yuan’s Jasmine Blossoms, an extended and full-blown improvisation of the popular melody Molihua (Jasmines). It was a rowdy affair, for certain, but it opened SCO’s 2011-12 season on a climactic high.

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