Monday, 30 January 2012

TAN DUN'S MARTIAL ARTS TRILOGY / Singapore Festival Orchestra / Review

Esplanade Huayi Festival
Singapore Festival Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (27 January 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 30 January 2012 with the title "Tan Dun's trilogy a feast for the senses".

The one sure sign that Chinese culture has been wholly embraced by the global mainstream and consciousness was how Hollywood greeted Ang Lee’s martial arts epic movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon of 2000. Central to its phenomenal success was the Oscar-winning original score by Chinese-American composer Tan Dun, whose music has become as much a part of cinematographic lore as the scores of John Williams, Miklos Rozsa, Sergei Prokofiev and Erich Korngold before him.

The Martial Arts Trilogy presented Tan’s music from three wuxia movies for concert hall consumption in the form of three concertos, performed alongside action sequences projected on the screen. Suites would have been the more accurate description for these scores, as the music unfolded in multiple disparate movements, providing a capsule overview of the narrative.

Heard on its own, the 45-minute long Hero Concerto for violin and orchestra, written for Zhang Yimou’s film about the first emperor Shi Huangdi, might have been a tiresome prospect. However the magic about movies is the contemporary synthesis of various art forms into a glorious whole, serving present times what grand opera did for the 18th and 19th centuries.

Effectively written music makes a movie come alive by providing the story-telling an added dimension for the senses. Thus Wang Jiamin’s violin pyrotechnics, abetted by Zhao Xiaoxia’s atmospheric guqin, came to ably portray the self-sacrificing hero and heroine amid gravity-defying swordplay, intimate love scenes and breathtaking landscapes.

SSO Principal Cellist Ng Pei Sian reprised Yo-Yo Ma’s role for the Crouching Tiger Concerto, containing the most familiar music of the lot. Going beyond mere notes, his demanding part, full of sliding portamentos, violent pizzicatos and assorted effects, lived the role with absolute gusto. The Singapore Festival Orchestra, surely now the Republic’s de facto film orchestra, responded to Tan’s precise and dramatic directions with great immediacy and responsiveness, with a busy percussion section particularly relishing their parts.

The Banquet Concerto, with pianist Sun Jiayi as pugilist in a fiery red dress, had the least Chinese-sounding music. Tan cited as compositional influences Bartok and Stravinsky, for their raw percussive ostinatos, but it was the unbridled lyricism of Rachmaninov that stood out. That was perhaps the very reason, despite the death and mayhem it accompanied, that sent the full-house audience home happy and sated.

Two Maestros Meet: Tan Dun with Chan Tze Law, Music Director of the Singapore Festival Orchestra.

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