Monday, 9 January 2012

IVORY METAL / Gamelan Asmaradana and Shane Thio / Review

Gamelan Asmaradana with Shane Thio
Esplanade Recital Studio
Saturday (7 January 2012)

This review was publised in The Straits Times on 9 January 2012 with the title "Gamelan blends with piano".

The sight and sounds of a Javanese gamelan is one that is not easily forgotten. Upon encountering the gamelan for the very first time in Paris during the 1880s, a mesmerised French composer Claude Debussy declared that it had made the polyphony of Palestrina sound like child’s play.

The gamelan music heard in temple and village festive ceremonies is handed down the centuries via an oral tradition, but actual concert music for gamelan is a relatively new phenomenon. Operating on specific fixed scales, the music is highly tonal with much of the colour coming from the interplay of instruments used, including a battery of metallophones, gongs of varying range and size, untuned percussion and auxiliary partners.

Lou Harrison (1917-2003), doyen of American gamelan composers, loomed large in this sparkling concert by Gamelan Asmaradana, Singapore’s only professional gamelan orchestra. His Gendhing Bonang Alexander opened the evening, a quiet prelude compared with the more rowdy traditional Gendhing Bondhet Kethuk 2 Kerep, which had an extra layer of counterpoint provided by unison male voices of the ensemble.

In Jody Diamond’s Sabbath Bride, a Hebrew melody was first sung on its own with piano accompaniment and later euphoniously married with gamelan textures to the point where the separation of these disparate traditions became nigh impossible. Such was the versatility within the medium which made it so attractive to Western composers and ears.

On the subject of crossover, Barbara Benary’s Rag for Deena, clearly modelled after Scott Joplin, raised a ripple of mirth. Its rhythm-based form riddled with “wrong note” moments had found an unlikely yet plausible idiom in the gamelan.

The evening’s masterpiece was the Concerto for Piano & Gamelan by Harrison. In the conventional three movements, it included taxing solos for collaborative pianist extraordinaire Shane Thio, who had transposed his demanding part from a hand-written score.

The pianoforte may be considered a percussion instrument itself, operated by ivory keys activating hammers which strike metallic strings. When heard with the gamelan, it merges imperceptibly to be one in the family, and later emerging as a soloist on its own. The overall effect was uncommonly invigorating.

Closing the concert was young local composer Isaac Tan’s Running With The Wind, a pop-inspired number with a catchy chorus. On the evidence at hand, the gamelan should not be considered a traditional museum piece but a living and breathing organism.

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