Tuesday, 16 April 2013

ENSO / Yong Siew Toh Conservatory New Music Ensemble / Review

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory New Music Ensemble
Esplanade Recital Studio
Sunday (14 April 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 16 April 2013 with the title "Programme for nuclear fission".

Pieces of new music benefit greatly from the manner they are presented, often in juxtaposition with other works, to gain coherence and synergy they would otherwise not have if performed separately on their own. Such was the case of the five works presented by the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory New Music Ensemble conducted by Kawai Shiu, a composer himself.

The title Enso, accordingly to his interview notes, refers to the focused energy inherent in mere notes and motifs with their potential for infinite variations. This reviewer chooses to equate this with the power harnessed within the nucleus of an atom, the concert being a controlled experiment in nuclear fission. With each work being progressively longer and generating greater volume than the last, the result was a chain reaction leading to ever increasing circles.

The first three works were brief and relatively quiet. Even Pierre Boulez’s Memoriale from …explosante-fixe… (1985) had a strange and ethereal serenity, centred around flautist Tanasak Angsugomutkul’s virtuosity in trills and flutter-tongue technique.  Thai student composer Achittapol Tinnarat’s Compression (2012) opened with an emphatic, even grandiose, statement of the G note, and generated interesting textures with harp, piano, woodwind and brass in what may be seen as a prelude to something bigger.

Allied to this was Giacinto Scelsi’s Pranam II (1985), centred round a C sharp pedal-note, for whom the concept of sound was a series of sustained vibrations. There were small and subtle changes of textures along the way, making barely perceptible shift in the aural geography, like the minute movements of tectonic plates, mostly silent but unusually impactful.

Greater upheavals were reserved for Polish centenarian Witold Lutoslawski’s Chain 1 (1983), which employed the largest ensemble on the evening. His technique was to utilise mere fragments or shards of themes, developing into larger blocks or segments, the overlapping of which provides the origin of his title Chain. The manner in which the work progressed inexorably to a massive climax and its application to nuclear physics is perhaps coincidental.

Shiu’s own composition kör (2013) gets its title from the Hungarian word for “circle”. Superficially it takes the form of a single-movement piano concerto, opening with pianist Abigail Sin’s statement of themes based on Messiaen-like chords. Around her, instrumental groups were creating a moving spectrum of sound, arriving at a centre of calm represented by Yang Shuxiang’s solitary violin. Joined by Victor Williams’s viola, the music then segued to a short sequence with piano and vibraphone as partners in percussion.

The music contrasted light with darkness, high-pitched instruments with lower register ones, before returning for solo piano to close, a full circle being completed. There was a small but receptive audience for this show, sympathetic to the conviction and confidence of the young players. It looks like Esplanade's Spectrum Series and new music performance is hear to stay.

Kawai Shiu speaks forthrightly at the post-concert talk, and exhorts the audience to listen to more new music - Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring on Thursday week.

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