Monday, 23 September 2013


Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Singapore Conference Hall
Friday (20 September 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 23 September 2013 with the title "Composers league comes alive".

The Asian Composers League has been in existence for 40 years, and this is the second time that Singapore has hosted its international festival and conference. Held over four days, eight concerts by various local ensembles showcased works of 65 Asian composers (including nine Singaporeans) from East Asia and nations as far afield as Israel, Tajikistan, Australia, New Zealand and USA.

The Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO) conducted by Yeh Tsung was given the honour of opening the festival, amply demonstrating the sheer diversity of musical expression of composers whose common but tenuous link is that of geography. What constitutes Asian music? Given the mobility of peoples across lands and global cultures, that answer must be far different from what it was some fifty years ago.

In Singapore, the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, performing
Tsai Ling-Huei's Chia Found, has become the de facto
champion of Asian new music.

The concept of the Chinese orchestra has also outgrown its infancy. It is no longer just a band of traditional folk instruments but a creative body that challenges the primacy of the western symphony orchestra. Here, the SCO has far outstripped its western counterpart in performing Asian and Singaporean new music, and become the genre’s de facto leader.

How else would two Caucasian composers write for such forces? The World Premiere of Belgian-born Singaporean resident Robert Casteels’s Third Symphony showed that no Asian-sounding themes were required to make a work for Chinese instruments sound convincing. Its form involved a common opening theme on low bass tremolos, over which running scales and nascent chords emerged. This was played thrice, each run being a different variation, like a door opening to three varied vistas. The second variation was a passacaglia, micro-variations on a five-note bass; truly neat.

Robert Casteels acknowledging the World Premiere
of his Third Symphony Op.55.

American Michael Sidney Timpson’s Sinaethesia combined things Chinese with the neurological propensity to experience sound as colours. The movement Blossom used the folksong Jasmine but dressed it with such euphonious textures as to be almost unrecognisable. The plush use of strings, dizi and suona solos added to its myriad palette of shades.

Taiwanese Tsai Ling-Huei’s Chia Found, which translates as “plucking airs” or collecting folklores, opened the concert. Its four short connected movements depicted dawn, coming of life and stasis with deft use of untuned percussion, a ritualistic suona solo from Jin Shi Yi and bows to strike the wood of string instruments.

Guzheng soloist Xu Hui in
Pan Hwang-Long's Concerto for Chinese Orchestra.

The first movement of veteran Taiwanese composer Pan Hwang-Long’s Concerto for Chinese Orchestra was a happy confluence of the old and new. The ancient melodies Guan Shan Yue (Moon Over Frontier Mountains) and Parting at Yangguan were both discernible over a counterpoint of percussion and Xu Hui’s virtuoso showing on the guzheng.

Taiwanese composer Pan Hwang-Long receives the applause.

A view of Raymond Mok's Cycles of Destiny.
Note the two groups of winds in opposite balconies.

Hongkonger Raymond Mok’s Cycles of Destiny employed three separate and widely spaced groups of winds to marvellous effect. From the balconies on either side of the hall, duelling suona solos sounded the refrain signalling the never-ending cycle of birth, life and death central to Buddhist, Taoist and Confucianist thought. The violent dance of life and use of a singing bowl seemed to reflect the impermanent events within each cycle.

The concert closed with Ho Chee Kong’s Passage, an epic single-movement fantasy, possibly the most important cello concertante work by a Singaporean to date. Commissioned for the 2012 Singapore Arts Festival and premiered by cellist Qin Li-Wei, its stark contrasts of meditative musings and tumultuous upheavals were conceived as a prequel to Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring.

Cellist Qin Li-Wei gave the World Premiere of
Ho Chee Kong's Passage at the Singapore Arts Festival in 2012.
Here he premieres the version for Chinese Orchestra

Despite stretches of apparent calm, it is an edgy work with anguish etched in every phrase and gesture. Qin’s identification with its idiom was absolute, his solo either battling orchestral forces or heaving long-breathed sighs. The thorny cadenza and extended solo after all ensemble activity had ceased may be viewed as a metaphor of absolute isolation. Every single life lost, whether in war, peace, or as a rite of passage in appeasement of the gods, is a major tragedy.  
(From L to R): Terence Ho, Raymond Mok, Pan Hwang-Long,
Qin Li-Wei, Yeh Tsung, Guest-of-honour Lawrence Wong
(Acting Culture Minister), Ho Chee Kong,
Michael Sidney Timpson, Tsai Ling-Huei and Robert Casteels.

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