Monday, 2 September 2013

CHUNG YIU-KWONG WITH SCO / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Singapore Conference Hall
Friday (30 August 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 2 September 2013 with the title "The perfect storm".

The Hong Kong-born composer-conductor Chung Yiu-kwong is the General Director of the Taipei Chinese Orchestra and one of the island-state’s most prolific composers. He assumed both roles in his debut with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, impressively conducting the ensemble almost completely from memory. 

The concert began with Zhao Ji Ping’s Celebration Overture, modelled on Russian nationalist Mikhail Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture. From the opening motivic gesture and runs for the strings, it could have been called a knock-off if not for its melodic wallow in the centre which set apart the music as Chinese rather than Russian.

Far more interesting was Chung’s own The World of Chinese Painting, a veritable concerto for orchestra that employed contemporary techniques and an imaginative palette of sound textures. Despite the impossibly wide scope, he managed to cram nine disparate movements within its half-hour duration. Running roughly in historical sequence, the music attempted to encompass Neolithic rock etchings to Xu Bei Hong canvasses and much in between.

The influence of Bartok was discernible, for example in the twittering of high pitched winds and percussion of his patented “night music” in the sixth movement, inspired by Qi Bai Shi’s Insect on a Leaf. The dizi family was afforded the greatest dissonance, with jarring semitones and whole-tones colouring the Sutras of Immeasurable Life. The percussion had a field day, depicting primeval shamanistic rituals, Silk Road dance rhythms, a Qingming celebration honouring ancestors, and most impressively, a herd of wild stallions stampeding across the grasslands.

The final movement, after Zhang Da Qian’s Before the Rain, brought the work to a strident close, with an episode of suspenseful music building up to a perfect storm. A virtuoso outfit like the SCO was made for this kind of programmatic music.

The concert’s second half was more conventional. Wu Hou Yuan’s Red Plum Capriccio was the concertante work featuring soloist Zhu Lin, whose amplified erhu sang with mellifluousness and not a little showmanship. Stylistically, this work resembled the better-known Butterfly Lovers Concerto in its use of themes and overall narrative.

To close was the epic symphonic poem General Mu Guiying In Command, composed in 1960 by a committee of four from the Amateur Composition Group of the Beijing Central Philharmonic Society. Like the similarly conceived Yellow River Concerto (by a committee of five), here is the music of consensus, featuring patriotic subjects, heroic themes and big melodies coloured by socialist realist overtones.

What saved the work were its references to traditional Beijing opera, and in Kuan Nai-chung’s transcription, the poignant part played on the high-pitched jinghu by concertmaster Li Baoshun. With the spirit of the legendary woman warrior triumphant, a noisy apotheosis was guaranteed. The ensuing encore was about another heroine of socialism, a Russian one for a change, with conductor Chung’s arrangement of the Dance of the Rose Maidens from Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian’s ballet Gayaneh. How very apt.

Photographs by the kind permission of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra.

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