Monday, 24 June 2013


The Philharmonic Orchestra / Lim Yau
Arts Fission Company / Angela Liong
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (22 June 2013)

I was originally going to write a review of this concert for The Straits Times, but the editor had a dance reviewer to cover it instead. As I still had my ticket, I enjoyed the concert on a non-reviewing capacity. Here are some of my reflections which I had promised to share on this blog. 

One century after the riotous first performance of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring), young orchestras in Singapore have been queuing up to perform it. The Orchestra of the Music Makers led by Chan Tze Law fired the first salvo at the Singapore Arts Festival in June last year. The Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra conducted by guest Eiji Oue made its emphatic mark on Esplanade barely two months ago. Now was the turn of The Philharmonic Orchestra (TPO) and Lim Yau, and never has the work been in greater currency here than ever.

TPO’s account was not a one-off, but rather a culmination of a series of Stravinsky concerts conducted by Lim entitled One Hundred Years Later, which began with The Firebird in 2010 and Petrushka one year later. Interspersed in between were further performances, also conducted by the indefatigable maestro, of The Soldier’s Tale (TPO), the Symphony in C major, Symphony in Three Movements (TPO), Symphony of Psalms (Singapore Symphony Orchestra and Choruses) and the ballet Apollon Musagetes (SSO). Clearly Lim Yau is Singapore’s new Stravinsky proselytiser, much as Choo Hoey was in the 1980s and 90s.

TPO’s Rite was to be more than just a concert. It had to be, given that the ballet in two parts does not last more than 35 minutes, or half a CD’s worth of time. To this end, the collaboration with The Arts Fission Company, one of Singapore’s more innovative independent dance troupes under the direction of Cultural Medallion recipient Angela Liong, was a coup of sorts. This production was to include not just professional dancers but also common folk. After all, the rites celebrated by primeval Central Asians, the original subject of Stravinsky’s ballet, was an affair involving real flesh-and-blood people; adolescents, elders, shamans and, yes, vestal virgins.

The Chosen One, and the bond-maidens (Photo: Guek Peng Siong)

The sacrifice of pure blood, to appease pagan gods of the land and seasons, is still practised albeit with modifications in some parts of the world today. Without being judgemental on certain religions, cults and cultures, the thrust of the message was to remind the more enlightened peoples of the world (Singaporeans among them, I suppose) that injustices against the weak and oppressed (like female circumcision, child marriages, honour killings, white slavery and the like) are still being carried out in the name of religion, tradition, culture and commerce.

The Chosen One is given her hood which seals her fate (Photo: The Pond Company)

The dancers and movers were attired in ceremonial red, the colour of blood, in costumes that resembled those of hill tribes in Southeast China or Indochina (no human sacrifice has been recorded here, or at least we think so, and thus politically acceptable). Among them were six professional dancers from Arts Fission, a group of young girls (thus satisfying Stravinsky’s description of “dancing lolitas”), and by far the largest group - of elders and sages, and their minders. The stage was extended to accommodate the orchestra and the dancers, but the latter had only a narrow strip of space from which to operate, and that somewhat hindered their manoeuvrability. Just enough space, I would hasten to add.

Both dramaturges, Lim Yau and Angela Liong, appeared on stage to give a preamble on the history and inspiration of the work (in English, and Mandarin for the sake of the many heart-landers in the audience), and the action began. The group of girls gambolled onto the stage, and one of them is ensnared with a red sash against her will and dragged away, and the music began with the solo bassoon. I will not go into detail about the orchestra’s performance, but suffice to say, the playing was very accomplished, with the solos confidently dispatched and all the sections admirably coping with the music’s thorny dissonances, treacherous cross-rhythms, and abrupt shifts of meter and dynamics. The score looks hellish enough, and what it must be for each player to encounter the music for the first (and last) time; every rehearsal and the actual performance must have been a trial of sorts, but the ensemble outdid itself. Having mastered The Firebird and Petrushka was certainly good preparation for the Rite.

The Oldies and their parasols (Photo: The Pond Company)

The choreography generally emphasised violence and cruelty, and that was accomplished with minimum of fuss and personnel. What was missing somewhat was the sheer spectacle of it all with a grande corps de ballet, and that was made up by the elders seated in the choir gallery behind the orchestra. On the signal of the Procession of the Sages, they literally tottered in with their walking aids and their younger minders (to forestall apoplexy, sudden cardiac arrest and fractured hips – those Esplanade steps are indeed treacherous). That was a spectacle in itself, leading to one member of the audience sitting behind me to blurt out audibly in Hokkien, “They are coming now…”  Thank you for the commentary.

The oldies played their part well, which consisted of simple ritualistic movements, all faithfully carried out in mostly in perfect synchrony. And there was a mass opening of umbrellas (also bright red) to further the ruddiness of the gallery, the symbolism of which is completely lost to me. I can only think the involvement of the sages (the oldest being an nonagenarian of 92 or 93) was symbolic of the fact that old habits (including ritual homicide) die hard, and one needs someone from the older generation to declaim, “Let’s stop this killing nonsense, and life will still carry on anyway. Let’s become sceptics and atheists.” Alas, that is not to be the case.

The dancers from Arts Fission Company (Photo: The Pond Company) 

Other than the above serial commentator (always in Hokkien, and his name is probably Lim Peh, and no relation to Lim Yau), the audience was generally respectful and well-behaved. There was no inappropriate applause between the two parts, despite The Adoration of the Earth ending on a loud cataclysmic note. And the ovation at the conclusion of The Sacrifice was long enough to ensure multiple curtain calls. The music was played continuous and without interruption except for two moments in The Sacrifice, where the orchestra stopped for a few second to allow certain vital movements to take place. That was unfortunate as it disrupted the momentum and direction of the performance. A second performance would have seen that kink ironed out, unless that was deliberate.

The performers take their bow. (Photo: The Pond Company)

Overall, I greatly enjoyed the experience and wondered if this would have been a good addition to the Singapore Arts Festival had it taken place this year. It certain engaged the community at large, bringing many people (including the Lim Pehs) to attend an arts event in which they would have otherwise missed. The concert ended at 8.35 pm, which gave me ample time to scoot off to the School of the Arts where the Singapore International Piano Festival was taking place, to see Benjamin Grosvenor in recital. No rest for the wicked, so they say.

Photos by courtesy of The Pond Company ( and Guek Peng Siong.

Performers take a bow (Photo: Pianomania)

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