Monday, 30 September 2013

EIGHT / The Teng Ensemble / Review

The Teng Ensemble
Esplanade Recital Studio
Saturday (28 September 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 30 September 2013 with the title "Catchy pop from Chinese instruments".

A pair of sold-out concerts marked the eighth anniversary of The Teng Ensemble, an eight member group playing predominantly traditional Chinese instruments. It all began with its musicians winning top prizes at the 2004 National Chinese Music Competition and a first gig at the 2009 Night Festival. 

Its philosophy was simple: to redefine Chinese instrumental music by updating it with modern technology, assimilating contemporary popular styles and the added gloss of an ultra-slick presentation.

Thousands of white chrysanthemums strewn on the floor greeted the audience, as eight young and well-groomed men trooped into position under the flicker of strobe lights. It was almost Saturday Night Fever when the octet belted out its titular number Eight, a vigorous dance dominated by electronic backing (helmed by the unseen Lim Wei) but with each instrument given moments in the spotlight.    

Founder and pipa virtuoso Samuel Wong (left) had significant solos but kept a low profile, deferring to composer-in-residence Benjamin Lim Yi (below) who doubled as guitarist and personable emcee. All his compositions and arrangements were short and catchy, with strong melodic content and the appeal of a pop song.

The simplest was the treatment of antique Chinese tune Guan Shan Yue, with just Yang Ji Wei’s sheng, Johnny Chia’s guzheng and Wong’s pipa, sounding pure and unadorned. More elaborate was the reworking of folk tune Xiao Bai Cai, with Darrel Xin’s touching erhu plaint of the little orphan girl tugging on the heartstrings amid lush accompaniment of electronica.

Both erhu and Gerald Teo’s cello starred in Contemplate, its simple variations on a ground bass resembling an Oriental version of Pachelbel’s Canon. A folksy three-note motif became the centre of Forest Trails, a bucolic and carefree jaunt in the countryside.

The music of Korean drama serials was the inspiration of Vals, a sentimental lilting dance in three-quarter time, joined by counter-tenor Phua Ee Kia’s (left) wordless vocals and Patrick Ngo’s yangqin. The unusual combo of Japanese anime music and Cuban guitarist Leo Brouwer contributed to Un Dia de Septiembre (A Day In September), a serenade with a succession of plucked strings which included Lim’s classical guitar for good measure.

A dizzying setting of Tang dynasty poem Zi Ye Ge, with the full complement of eight, closed the 80-minute concert on a boisterous dizzy high. There were two very well-received encores, Go On and He (Coming Together), pieces from past gigs which sparked a wild rush to purchase The Teng Ensemble’s debut CD recording (below) – a fitting souvenir of an entertaining evening of music-making.  

The Teng Ensemble's Eight
to be reviewed in these pages soon.

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