Monday, 20 February 2012

EIGHT TONES UNINTERRUPTED / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Singapore Conference Hall
Friday (17 February 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 20 February 2012 with the title "An Asian feast for all".

This concert, part of the island-wide musical marathon in conjunction with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra’s 15th anniversary, showed how much Chinese instrumental music has evolved. The long-held notion of small chamber groups playing ancient Chinese melodies in strict unison has given way to a diversity that is rapidly expanding.

The concert began with Wang Dan Hong’s rhapsodic Eight Tones, with the solo suona boldly opening accounts. Raw and earthy, the motto theme based on Zhuang ethnic music was subjected to a series ceremonial fanfares and elaborations before erupting into a full-blown dance procession.

Moving southerly was Sabah-native Simon Kong’s Izpirazione II, which won 2nd Prize in the International Chinese Orchestral Composition Competition in 2006. The two movements performed, Rambutan and Tarap (a jackfruit’s relative, above), attempted to infuse Southeast Asian elements into what is now known as Nanyang music.

The former was a rhythmic scherzo-like movement with strong presence of tuned percussion, while the latter revelled in Borneo aboriginal rhythms and conductor Quek Ling Kiong’s ad libitum grunts and chants. Audience participation was included, with synchronised foot-stomping and rhythmic clapping.

When it came to Zhang Xiao Feng’s Nong Yu Sheng, a three-movement virtuoso concerto for sheng and orchestra, the idioms were so removed from Chinese sources as to sound positively occidental. What were Zhang’s inspirations? French, Russian or Bernstein’s Americana? It was hard to tell from the first movement’s lilting serenade, or the slow movement’s atmospherics which lightly balanced muted strings with Guo Chang Suo’s sensuously beautiful solo, or the busy toccata-like figurations of the furious finale. Suffice to say, it was a surprising and original departure from the norm, and a quite brilliant one at that.

As if to appease more conservative tastes, the second half was more traditional with Yang Chun Lin and Zhan Yong Ming’s Never-Ending Resentment, a concerto about the ill-fated romance of the Tang Emperor and concubine Yang Gui Fei. Originally scored for two erhus, this version showcased Zhan’s amazing range on a composite flute that combined both registers of bangdi and qudi. Lovers of the Butterfly Lovers Concerto would have warmed up to this.

To close was A Trip To Lhasa by Kuan Nai-Chung, a picture postcard suite with its programmatic depictions of the Potala (solemn and sacred), the Yalu Tsangpo River (flowingly lyrical), a sky burial (eerie and macabre) and the Vanquishing Demons dance (noisily joyous). it was a raucous close to a concert with something for everybody.

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