Monday, 7 November 2011

JOURNEY TO MONGOLIA / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (5 November 2011)

An edited version of this review was published in The Straits Times on 7 November 2011 with the title "Tender is the Mongol warrior".

This very interesting concert by the Singapore Chinese Orchestra dwelled on two themes, music inspired by the rugged wilderness of Mongolia, and contrasting timbres of the matouqin (horse head fiddle) and modern cello. A short but arresting prelude introduced the remarkable voice of young Mai La Su, heftily built like a wrestler and attired in traditional Mongolian costume including headdress.

His was the art of humai, or throat singing, where the human voice produces multiple tones by the use of harmonics or overtones. At least two very different kinds of sound were discerned, a sustained low-pitched bovine grunt and an other-worldly high-pitched whine as if electronically synthesised.

These were skilfully employed in Tang Jian Ping’s Yuan (The Origin), dovetailing neatly with Mai’s matouqin playing. Cradled between the thighs, this unusual bowed string instrument produces a mellow sound similar to the viola and cello. In this rhapsodic piece, his artistry alternated between crafting a singing tone and multi-tasking - combining both skills simultaneously as well as plucking the Jew’s harp. The Mongolian minstrels of antiquity were being headily relived.

More conventional was Qin Li-Wei’s cello-playing in Wang Qiang’s Gada Meilin, a cello concerto on the life and death of the titular Mongolian general. His unmistakeably deep-breathed tone, full of body and lustre in its soliloquys, was reminded one of similar passages in cello concertos by Elgar, Shostakovich and Bloch. With such committed advocacy, this work deserves to be as well-known as the overplayed Butterfly Lovers and Yellow River Concertos.

The orchestra under Yeh Tsung’s direction also performed Tang’s Gallant Steed and Zhang Han Shu’s Beautiful Ke Er Qin Steppe, picture postcard portrayals of Mongolian lore and landscape. The former was a furiously driven depiction of the Golden Horde sweeping down the plains, the latter a tuneful suite in the manner of Khachaturian’s ballets.

Both matouqin and cello were united for Tang’s Genghis Khan Capriccio, a double concerto in one movement. Adequate amplification allowed both instruments to be heard equally, one playing the melodic line with the other accompanying, and later with the roles reversed. This was a partnership of prima inter pares – first among equals, in music that is both meditative and dramatic.

It was however Mai’s humai, which had the last words as the work came to a surprisingly subdued and subtle close. It seemed the mighty Mongol conquerer had a tender and human side too.

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