Sunday, 4 September 2011

A GLIMPSE OF SINGAPORE / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
SCO Concert Hall
Saturday (3 September 2011)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 5 September 2011 with the title "Capturing Geylang Serai through Nanjing Lu".

It is perhaps the very nature of Chinese music to be programmatic or narrative in character. Absolute music or manifestations of the abstract in music are much less encountered, so concerts of programme or descriptive music, such as this, are very much in the norm. Even the title A Glimpse Of Singapore gave a clue that musical travelogue was taking place.

Two movements of Gu Guan Ren’s titular suite on his 1987 visit to the Lion City opened the concert. The Beach had evocative dizi and erhu solos which suggested he had not yet left China, but the raucous percussion parade and Malay-flavoured melodies heard on strummed ruan and sheng made it clear that The Festival was captured somewhere in Kampong Glam or Geylang Serai.

Even the two virtuoso concertos played were inspired by scenery, folklore and legends. Li Bin Yang’s Mountain Deity elaborated on indigenous themes and rhythms, with Han Lei’s guan solo rising above the teeming throng to resonate like a heady saxophone in those Basque fantasies favoured by French composers. His range on the humble reed instrument was astonishing.

Xu Chang Jun’s The Phoenix was equally enthralling, almost a yangqin concerto that Bela Bartok never wrote. The Chinese dulcimer, an Eastern relative of the Hungarian cimbalom, is capable of extremes in dynamics, from soothing placidity to vehement violence, which Qu Jian Qing provided with an extravagance of flair.

Former SCO Deputy Director Qu Chun Quan (left) also conducted two of his own creations, a transcription of the traditional folk tune Dancing In Gossamer and the kitschy Shanghai Capriccio. The latter was eclecticism gone overboard, with Chinese melodies strung on the torso of Gershwin’s An American In Paris and a percussion sequence straight out of Britten’s Young Person’s To The Orchestra. Just remove the taxi horns and substitute the Champs-Elysee with Nanjing Lu, and one gets the idea.

The longest and best work was Rao Yu Yan’s Hymn Of Li Mountain, a symphonic poem inspired by Tang Dynasty poet Tu Fu’s lament. Its four connected segments detailed the poet’s weary climb, his witnessing of a feast of wanton waste – represented by a dance that grows progressively intoxicated – and closing with an orchestral sigh of anguish and resignation. Music can tell stories, and the Chinese orchestra does it most eloquently.

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