Tuesday, 6 March 2012

SU-ABODE / Teng Ensemble / Review

Teng Ensemble
Esplanade Recital Studio
Sunday (4 March 2011)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 6 March 2012 with the title "Moving tunes of home".

Funky chamber groups are now making their mark on the local musical scene. The Teng Ensemble, formed by seven musicians playing Chinese traditional and Western instruments and two composers, commands a loyal following with two sold-out concerts at the Esplanade Recital Studio as solid evidence.

Its latest concert had the idea of “abode”, a home or residence, as its underlying theme, with each short single-movement work on the programme based on a specific place or space of living and dwelling. With each engendered a sense of belonging, and often memories and nostalgia, aided by the visuals projected on the screen behind the players.

The titular Su (Abode) for the full ensemble by Wang Si opened the concert and set the tone for the 55-minute long concert. Over a recorded tape of synthesised sounds, the instruments began their individual threads beginning with the ensemble’s Artistic Director Samuel Wong’s pipa (above), and later passed on to his colleagues.

Unlike Occidental works bedecked with elaborate counterpoint, the quasi-Oriental pieces were more straight-forward in their thematic presentation, with the melodic line carried by pipa or Yang Jiwei’s sheng, elaborated by Patrick Ngo’s yangqin and Johnny Chia’s guzheng. Gerald Teo’s cello and Benjamin Lim Yi’s guitar provided the accompaniment.

Like popular songs, these pieces rise and build into brief climaxes before receding into a calming serenity. Mixed into these was counter-tenor Phua Ee Kia’s alternatingly soothing and ecstatic tones, usually in wordless melismata or in the case of Lim’s Dian (Palace), verses of Tang poetry. Heard on their own, the facility and savvy of atmospheric film music is rekindled.

It was the moving images that gave the music an extra dimension. For Wang’s Tang (Hall), black and white footage of 1950s and 60s Singapore provided a sobering reminder of what we have lost, and in the more rhythmic and vibrant Lou (Ballroom) by Lim, choreography from Thai Classical, ballet to breakdancing were the cues. In Lim’s Xiang (Village), the relationship between families, parents and children was inspired by the Hebei folksong Xiao Baicai (Little White Cabbage).

For the final number Wang’s Ju (Home), three members from Fortitude Percussion provided a ritualistic beat, one exposing bare chests and rippling muscles. An encore, He (Unity), one of the ensemble’s early pieces and in the same melodious idiom, gave the enthusiastic audience much to cheer about.

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