Monday, 19 August 2013

GALA: DRUM YOU UP / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Singapore Conference Hall
Friday (16 August 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 19 August 2013 with the title "Drums roll for rowdy evening".

The Singapore Chinese Orchestra’s opening gala concert for the 2013-14 season resounded with the terrific din of percussion. As if the cumbersome and awkward title was not enough, the first work, Chew Hee Chiat’s Let the Thunder of Drums Roll VII, greeted the hall with a parade of 26 drummers doing their best to ensure the swift sales of ear plugs. 

Two orchestral drummers with dagus flanked conductor Yeh Tsung on stage, while two dozen young beaters from seven schools occupied the aisles and balconies to create a stereophonic effect. Well trained and disciplined to a fault, they responded accurately on cue and hardly missed a beat in this impressive showing.

Zhao Ji Ping’s film music for The Family Legend, incorporating Moon over Lugou River at Dawn, gave concertmaster Li Baoshun’s jinghu (the highest pitched bowed stringed instrument) a chance to sing, and there was even an interlude for a repetitious pipa melody. Not to be outdone, the orchestral percussion dominated a central rhythmic section before the jinghu had the last word.

Chen Ning Chi’s Tales of the Walled City Suite was picture postcard music, inspired by scenes from the infamous Kowloon Walled City, a century-old and crime-ridden ghetto that was demolished in the 1990s. Its movements included a scherzo-like dance of women with bound feet, a nocturne-like romance and a Pirate’s Song with a drunken and shifty rhythm.

The second half of the concert was dominated by solo percussionist Li Biao, who commands teaching posts in the conservatories of Beijing and Berlin. His Dance of the Century, co-composed with Meng Ke, and arranged by Simon Kong, was a tour de force of percussion technique and versatility. Here the musical idiom ambled through Chinese music, world music, New Age music and back, with purists scratching their heads as to where it truly belonged.

It is probably pointless to attempt classification, and better to be swept by Li’s seemingly effortless virtuosity as he rocked a set of modern drums, tinkled on pitched percussion, namely a marimba and vibraphone, plucked a thumb piano (a handy contraption with resonating metal strips) and sat with a quartet of orchestral percussionists for a session of improvisation. Even conductor Yeh joined in with a diminutive rattle. An almighty race between bass drum and orchestral percussion ended this breathtaking piece in three movements.

Xu Chang Jun’s Dragon Dance, prompted by watching the Chingay procession, was a predictable racket, but it still held interest as Li’s pitched battle with orchestral percussion continued, with both parties operating at different rhythms and independent meters. The audience also held its collective breath as Li’s two encores, ragtime and blues numbers, closed the rowdy evening with an almost unnerving quiet.  

All photographs by the kind permission of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra.

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