Monday, 6 February 2012

MELODIES OF CLASSIC VIRTUES / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Esplanade Huayi Festival
Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (4 February 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 6 February 2012 with the title "A preachy lesson on Virtues".

Every child learning Chinese language and culture will come to memorise the first six words of San Zi Jing (Three Character Classic). “Ren zhi chu, xing ben shan” translates roughly as “All men are born good”. That book of proverbs goes on to exhort readers on virtues and how to live in a corrupting world.

The Prelude of Xu Jian Qiang’s 90-minute long cantata, by virtue of its episodic form, was opened by a boy soprano intoning these words. Young Chua Yu Xuan was confident, holding his nerve even when his spectacles threatened to fall off. This refrain was repeated in soothing tones by Japanese soprano Izumi Watanabe, establishing it as the recurring mantra of the work.

Narrator and MediaCorp personality Guo Liang, garbed like a Chinese scholar, posed the question, “Why do we study the San Zi Jing and Di Zi Gui?”, while the splendid combined choirs of Tanjong Katong Secondary and Victoria Junior College (Chorus master: Nelson Kwei) did most of the sung recitations. Moral and character building, we learn, were the reasons. What followed was a sequence of vignettes drawn from the book’s collected wisdom.

Filial piety was an A-list virtue, with an instrumental meditation from guqin and xiao, and a very Confucian number called “Be Good To Your Parents”. Also celebrated were the sacrifices by Mencius’s mother (shielding the sage from evil influences by constantly relocating), the thoughtfulness of Huang Xiang (who looked after his father’s reclining comforts) and the selflessness of Kong Rong. The last was the boy who chose the smallest pear while leaving the juiciest ones for his elder siblings.

Chua sang the part, accompanied by a hundred other children in a rap with the title “Conduct Of Younger Siblings”. Their stances and movements were eerily reminiscent of Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution. But was that tragic episode not the result of unthinking obeisance, blind faith, and ideological indoctrination brought to their logical conclusions?

At worst, this exercise sounded preachy, like those social-engineering campaigns the government dreams of. But it soon got better when universal values were broached, beginning with “Brothers Should Work To Become Friends” and “Loyalty And Courage”. Veteran operatic tenor Yu Jixing provided the clarion call, and eight drummers sealed the pact.

Learn From The Virtuous” and the grand apotheosis Tian Xia Da Tong or “Unity Among All” showed the ancient Chinese had a gift of prescience, as their very words were echoed thousands of years later by George Santayana (“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”) and in Schiller and Beethoven’s “All Men Are Brothers”.

The Singapore Chinese Orchestra led by Yeh Tsung accompanied the proceedings with much sympathy and unobtrusiveness. As for the notion of bringing this production on tour, parts of it will probably go down with Western audiences as well as the Obedient Wives Club.

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