Saturday, 5 October 2013

FLOURISHES / NAFA New Music Ensemble / Review

NAFA New Music Ensemble
Lee Foundation Theatre
Thursday (3 October 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 5 October 2013 with the title "Aural snapshot of city and country".

Following the fine example set by the Conservatory, the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts has begun to present new music in chamber concerts open to the public. This modest but encouraging free event, attended by a small audience, featured works by four locally-based composers who are faculty or alumni of the institution (below).

The eponymous Flourishes by Jeremiah Li which began the concert was a set of three contrasting canvasses exploring different moods and textures on flute, clarinet, cello and piano. Loud and emphatic riffs issued from the opening Presto Agitato, a world apart from the static calm of the middle movement Tranquillo which included the insides of the piano being quietly percussed. A jazzy ostinato from Tran Thanh Xuan’s piano set the rhythm of the insouciant finale which gave the work a languid feel of the American Deep South.

Each composer spoke briefly about their pieces. Li likened his Daemonwing for solo violin to the malevolence of a gothic cathedral gargoyle in flight. Violinist Guo Xingchen (below left) was put through an etude-like test which bristled with high-pitched harmonics and sul ponticello, the wiry timbre produced when the instrument is bowed near its bridge.

Similarly inspired was Lim Tee Heong’s The Devil Dancing for solo piano, receiving its world premiere by excellent Indonesian pianist Wilson (above right). Lim attempted to outdo the efforts of Liszt’s First Mephisto Waltz which he considered being “too nice”. Its 333 bars (exactly half of the diabolical number triple 6) housed trills galore, insistent gestures and abrupt rhythm changes before coruscating home with a tarantella from hell.

The two pieces by Zechariah Goh Toh Chai sounded more conventional but have the best chance of becoming central repertoire works. Four Taiwanese Aboriginal Songs for woodwind quintet is an excellently scored study of ethno-musicological research, in the best tradition of masters like Bartok and Kodaly. Conducted by the composer himself, the EDQ quintet brought out its quaint folksy flavour to great effect.

Goh’s T’was The Rain, part of an ongoing series of chamber pieces, was impressionistic in its colour, with long-breathed passages by flautist Jasper Goh and oboist Veda Lin (above) sensitively accompanied by Ernest Lim on the piano. This was the aurally the most alluring work in the whole concert.

Not to be outdone was Eric Watson’s Aftermath for solo piano, composed in 2011 as a reflection of the Japanese tsunami tragedy. Introspective rather than violent, its subtle mood changes ranged from stoic despair to placid resignation, masterfully negotiated by Ukrainian pianist Kseniia Vokhmianina (above) with much polish and poise.

This concert was in essence a 70-minute panoramic snapshot of the contemporary composing scene in the “city” (the Academy at Bencoolen Street), a quite different but equally valid vista from the “country” (the Conservatory at Kent Ridge). It is hoped that more is forthcoming in the near future. 

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