Friday, 1 March 2013

CANVAS OF NATURE / Asian Contemporary Ensemble / Review

Asian Contemporary Ensemble
Esplanade Recital Studio
Wednesday (27 February 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 1 March 2013 with the title "Riotous soprano a force of Nature".

The New Music Ensemble of our local conservatory has spawned a child of its own: the Asian Contemporary Ensemble (ACE), led by young conductor and Yong Siew Toh graduate Wong Kah Chun. Taking a leaf from its parent ensemble, it gave a most invigorating and uncompromisingly dissonant concert under the banner of Esplanade’s adventurous Spectrum contemporary music series.

A large body of students and fair number of cognoscenti first heard Chong Kee Yong’s Mourning the Murder of an Old Banyan Tree (2002), conducted by the Malaysian composer himself (above). Inspired by a poem of the same title by Usman Awang, and scored for piano, violin, cello, clarinet, flute and percussion, it pursued an angry and grimly aggressive course.

The tolling of a temple gong marked the death knell of a centuries-old and beloved institution, an indictment of relentless urban progress. The procession of the flautist and clarinettist offstage at the end was also symbolic of the spirits of nature leaving and silenced, never to return.

Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu’s rather well-known A Way A Lone (1981) was serene by comparison. Its palpable melancholy was keenly brought out by the string quartet led by violinist Shaun Ho (above). Although atonal in most part, the spare post-impressionist scoring with tiny wisps of melody had a quality of being unusually luxuriant and sonorous.

All the above would still not have prepared the audience for the shuddering impact of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (Moonstruck Pierrot), the seminal 20th century masterpiece composed 101 years ago. Originally conceived for the cabaret, it makes use of the vocal technique known as Sprechstimme or Sprechgesang, where the performer hovers in limbo between singing and speaking.

Stealing the show was soprano Khor Ai Ming, sporting facial paint, a wild hairdo and attired in commedia dell’arte finery. In the 21 short movements sung in German, she lived and acted out its riotous range of emotions and moods. Whether punch-drunk or suspended in a semi-trance, it was difficult to tell, mostly because of the absence of texts or translations which would have greatly helped the listener traverse its numerous thorny brambles.

So one would have to rely on her vocal cues and facial improvisations to imagine what was going on. Listening to a recording will easily test one’s patience, and several members of the audience did walk out mid-way, but it was Khor’s stunning one-woman wrecking crew which kept everyone else transfixed.

Khor Ai Ming appearing truly moonstruck at the end of the work.

The six instrumentalists led by conductor Wong were close to excellent, transparent and incisive in their razor-keen responses. Not to mention pianist Bertrand Tan, flautist Cheryl Lim, clarinettist Tan Boon Ping, violinist Clarissa Ng, violist He Ziping or cellist James Ng’s contributions would be remiss. All of them, and Khor singing only her second Pierrot, deserve to be part of local musical history.  

Note: Khor Ai Ming and The Magnetic Band gave the Singapore premiere of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire several years ago in the same venue.

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