Monday, 22 April 2013

BUTTERFLY LOVERS / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Singapore Conference Hall
Saturday (20 April 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 22 April 2013 with the title "A tale of two concertos".

The Butterfly Lovers by Chen Gang and He Zhanhao has to be the most popular concerto in Singapore, even beating off the likes of those by Chopin, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. Tickets for the Singapore Chinese Orchestra’s two evening concerts with famous Chinese violinist Lu Si Qing were sold out so quickly that a matinee performance had to be added. He was also the fourth violinist to play this Chinese evergreen here within the space of six weeks.

Despite the virtuoso violin part, it is not a concerto in the strictest of senses. It is more a programmatic symphonic poem in sonata form, as compositional theorists might point out. Its appeal comes from the sheer melodic charm of its first subject, an exciting development and a nostalgic recapitulation with all the tear-jerking melodrama. The tragi-romantic storyline also provides much scope for imagination.

To this end, Lu’s offered a wondrous sense of the narrative. His seemingly casual demeanour was that of a wizened story-teller spinning a yarn to wide-eyed children, belying an impeccable and faultless technique. His liberal use of portamenti (sliding pitches) at the beginning may have verged on the sentimental, but that was a deliberate attempt to mimic the operatic human voice with all its inflexions and nuances.

Needless to say, he received the most prolonged applause, yielding two encores, but that was only part of the story. The other part belonged to erhu soloist Song Fei, who was no less prodigious or vivid in Kuan Nai-chung’s Centennial Memory of Xinhai, composed in 2011 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Chinese revolution that overthrew the Manchu dynasty.

A bona fide erhu concerto written in the form of a 4-movement programme symphony, there were parts that suggested the composer to be an acolyte of Shostakovich and Beethoven. Pitting Kenneth Lun’s big trumpet obbligato part with Song’s delicate erhu in counterpoint, with Beethoven’s Fate motif (from the Fifth Symphony) hovering in the wings was a device employed to good effect in the opening movement Awakening.

Less good was the idea for the lugubrious third movement Nation Sacrifice to appropriate the corresponding funeral march movement of Mahler’s First Symphony, and to quote from Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony at the end. If that was an act of homage to the great masters, it was not very subtly employed.

The true star, however, was Song who portrayed the full gamut of emotions that a sobbing erhu might achieve. As rumination turned to agitation, and mourning into celebration, the final movement A Century’s perpetual motion was the tour de force of her imperious showing. The erhu’s big statement of the original trumpet theme was also Sun Yat Sen’s ideals of revolution coming to fruition, as the listener is led to believe.

The Singapore Chinese Orchestra conducted by Yeh Tsung also performed Xu Jian Qiang’s Dreams Of The Red Chamber Suite, based on themes from the Yue Opera, and Stephen Yip’s prizewinning contemporary composition Nine Actors. Substantial fillers those were, but it was left for the two big string concertos to hog all the glory.   

Photographs courtesy of Singapore Chinese Orchestra.

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