Tuesday, 15 January 2013

IMPRESSIONS OF JAPAN / Xposé Guitar Ensemble / Review

Xposé Guitar Ensemble
Esplanade Recital Studio
Sunday (13 January 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 15 January 2013 with the title "From Shibuya to Mardi Gras".

Japan-themed concerts are not exactly rare in Singapore. The Singapore Chinese Orchestra and Philharmonic Winds have both doffed their collective caps to the rising sun, and Xposé Guitar Ensemble, formed by alumni of the Guitar Ensemble of National University of Singapore, has followed suit. It is not too surprising either, as the Niibori concept of the guitar orchestra – an ensemble formed by guitars of different pitches - originated in Japan.

Conducted by Ow Leong San, a livewire with close-cropped hair tied into a Cossack tail, the young ensemble was enthusiastic if a tad raw. In Ow’s own arrangement of James Barnes’s Impressions of Japan, originally scored for wind band, there was little by way of harmony on the guitars. The movements with simple melodic themes were dominated by percussive effects, which evoked dawn, a solemn Buddhist ceremony and a vibrant shrine festival.

Joe Hisaishi’s Departures, rewritten by ensemble member Zhao Jin as a concertante work for bass guitar, was over-cautious and Lim Sheng Jun’s solo hardly stood out from among the throng. Ow’s transcription of the theme from Final Fantasy X, more movie music, was just as soporific, until Zhao (below) downed his soprano guitar to belt out Atsushi’s Sagittarius, a hit song from the movie Nodame Cantabile. Karaoke is probably Japan’s most significant cultural export since the sushi bar.

The ensemble gained in composure and confidence in the second half, due in no small part to the highly animated guest conductor Kazuyuki Terada, Chief Conductor of Japan’s Niibori Guitar Music Academy. He literally danced his way through Hatanaka Yudai’s Sweets Suite, a salute to Japanese confectionary dressed up as a csardas, waltz and Latin dance.

As the tempo was upped, so was the interest of the music. Michio Miyagi’s concerto for two alto guitars, Variations on Sakura, gave Melissa Wan and Michelle Lim (above) some minutes under the spotlight. They were steady pairs of hands if not outright spectacular. Kengo Momose’s two works on flowers, Hana No En and Tinsagu Nu Hana, further expanded the sound palette of the group.

The former idiomatically merged pop music with Traditional gagaku court music. Strains of the piccolo and shakuhachi spiced up the proceedings, while others showed how to use the guitar as a percussion instrument. Sounds of the sea, sanxian (a close relative of the plucked shamisen) and tribal chanting lit up the latter, an Okinawan children’s song.

Toshio Mashima’s Gelato Con Caffe, the final piece, took on a bossa nova and samba beat. As exuberant percussion overwhelmed the far more subtle guitars, one could be forgiven for thinking that the streets of Shibuya had led right smack into a Mardi Gras in Rio. So much for all things Japanese, the sheer eclecticism and infectious energy all around was what the audience enjoyed most. 


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Tou Liang,

Thank you for coming to our concert, as well as for your kind words, which offered a very fair assessment of our performance in your review.

We look forward to hosting you again in future, perhaps when we get another guest conductor.