Monday, 7 July 2014

A NIGHT WITH MARK O'CONNOR / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (5 July 2014)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 7 July 2014

It might seem on first appearance that the famous American country fiddler Mark O’Connor had little to do with Chinese music. This concert by the Singapore Chinese Orchestra conducted by Yeh Tsung however brought together the common threads that united the string and folk traditions of two different continents.

The SCO is no stranger to linking the East and West, and this was another successful experiment because of its astute programming and excellent artists. It already had a built-in overture in Eric Watson’s The Ceilidh. This concerto for orchestra brought together a number of English, Scottish and Irish folktunes, culminating in the familiar O Waly, Waly (also known as The Water Is Wide) which featured a wonderful wind duet of guan and bangdi.  

The strings had it all to their own in Tan Dun’s Suite for Chinese String Instruments, the only work in its original form and the most austere. Modern techniques were applied to the huqins, cellos and basses in its three movements, creating otherworldly sound effects which evoked the wind and nature, but retained the spirit of the Chinese, including Beijing opera.

Mark O’Connor’s contributions were in the dual roles of composer and performer. Two purely orchestral works included Queen Anne’s Revenge (adapted by Wang Chen Wei), smelling of swashbuckling sea salt that would not sound out of place in those Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and Splendid Horizons (adapted by Law Wai Lun), a movement about American frontier families seeking their fortunes in the West.

The biggest reason why people came was to witness O’Connor’s artistry on the violin. Looking dapper in a silvery suit and fedora to match, he was the epitome of cool. Without as much visible effort or extraneous gestures, he just played and improvised as naturally as breathing air. The sheer freedom to which he applied his art was a refreshing departure from those strictly-scored classical works regularly heard in concert halls.

That did not mean there was no order or discipline in the playing, but the ability to create moments of musical inspiration with a variety of notes and treats within the confines of metre and timing was staggering. Equal to the task was violin partner Maggie Dixon who played his double in a game of unison, repartee and counterpoint in two works, Strings and Threads Suite and Olympic Harvest.

The former piece strung together 13 melodies, like a pioneering fiddler’s journey from the Old World to the New, from Irish dance reels to American bluegrass and jazz. The latter was a celebratory barn dance that used a reel composed for the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.

In the rip-roaring finale of O‘Connor’s Fiddle Concerto, the orchestra keenly kept up with his prestidigitations through its steeplechase of leaps and bounds. It fell silent and conductor Yeh stepped off the podium to witness a jaw-dropping solo cadenza that showed why he is considered the Paganini of the country violin.
Four encores were offered, including an improvised solo on the Ritchie Valens hit La Bamba and three duos with Dixon on Amazing Grace, W.C. Handy’s Saint Louis Blues and Emily’s Reel, written for Yo-Yo Ma’s daughter. Standing ovations are rare in Chinese orchestra concerts, and this one was well and truly deserved.

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