Monday, 25 March 2013

TREASURES OF TAIWAN / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review


Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Singapore Conference Hall
Saturday (23 March 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 25 March 2013 with the title "Cross-Straits Treasures".

Led by the young Taiwanese conductor Ku Pao-wen, the Singapore Chinese Orchestra performed a very well-conceived programme built around the theme of Taiwanese music and composers. It seems that the politics of separation has not adversely affected cross-Straits musical affairs. Chinese music has always endured, whether from the mainland or otherwise.

An case in point would be Sui Li Jun’s Guandong Overture, an effective showpiece by a mainland composer written for a Taiwanese youth orchestra. Concertmaster Li Bao Shun’s gaohu and Xu Zhong’s cello blended well for the work’s main theme, but it was the chorus of suonas, aided by dizis for an added nasal twang, that completely stole the show as the work drove to a frenzied and percussive close.

By contrast, Taiwanese composer-conductor Chung Yiu-kwong’s Erhu Concerto provided a mellowing salve. The first two movements were slow, almost elegiac, allowing soloist Tian Xiao to eloquently pour out his lament. Its long-breathed lines, sensitively supported by the orchestra, bore out the principal subject of Chung’s Beijing opera Sunlight After Snowfall. That poser was the imponderable question, “Where is one’s homeland?”

By means of contrast again, the finale was a Paganinian moto perpetuo, with Tian’s erhu the virtuoso vehicle for dazzling display. The hectic gallop rhythm, egged on by quasi-tribal drumming, brought to mind that famous showpiece Horse Racing, with soloist and orchestra rushing headlong to the finish line.

True to the pedestrian title of Scenic Taiwan, Kuan Nai-chung’s suite in three movements is a musical travelogue dressed up in the flashy orchestral colour of Respighi’s Roman Trilogy. The opening Tune of Taipei is a busy evocation of the city’s famous nightlife, with a brief gaohu and erhu duet by way of romantic interest.

The most memorable movement was the central Ku Diao (Crying Tone), with Jin Shi Yi’s suona a tour de force in expressing eternal sorrow and strife. The finale Tian Hei Hei (Darkening Sky) employed two folksongs as subjects, with effective scoring and instrumental flair being the saving graces of otherwise thin material.  

The concert concluded with Zhao Yong Shan’s orchestral adaptation of the pipa classic Ambush From All Sides, originally by Liu Wen Jin. A battle piece in the manner of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, but based on the war of 202 B.C., the programmatic music depicted the calm before the carnage, leading to a full scale assault with flying steeds and the clangourous clashing of metal.

It was all very rowdy stuff, enough to stun the living and wake the dead. More importantly, this concert showed that with well-chosen and contrasting works, the Chinese orchestra exists as a vital symphonic force, far more than just a glorified folk band. 


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