Tuesday, 7 July 2015

CONFLUENCE / Singapore Ruan Ensemble 10th Anniversary Concert / Review

Singapore Ruan Ensemble
Esplanade Concert Hall
Sunday (5 July 2015)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 7 July 2015 with the title "Ruan music hits the sweet spot".

The Singapore Ruan Ensemble marked its 10th anniversary with a concert that showcased some of the finest young talents in the local Chinese instrumental community. The group founded by Singapore Chinese Orchestra principal Zhang Rong Hui began with 20 players and has now expanded to over 50 members, augmented by bowed strings, wind and percussion for this concert.

The ruan is a four-stringed plucked instrument with a round torso, which sounds similar to a lute, guitar or banjo. Performing as a group, its mellow strummed sound has a pleasant ring, filled with varied timbres from instruments of differing registers. As a solo instrument, virtuosic playing of great agility makes for breathtaking spectacles.

The first half was led by Taiwanese conductor Ku Pao-wen, opening with Wang Chen Wei's Confluence. An excellent example of Nanyang music, its themes combined Chinese, Malayan and Indian influences which the ensemble played with much gusto, culminating in a fugue (a Western contrapuntal device) where the voices were very well delineated.

Law Wai Lun's arrangement of the guqin tune Xiao Xiang Shui Yun (Clouds Over Rivers Xiao & Xiang), a landscape portrayed in music, was beautifully atmospheric with a dizi melody rising above ruan accompaniment. Zhu Lin's Song Without Words was an Italianate serenade, the piano's contribution making its sound particularly Mendelssohnian.

Enjoying the solo spotlight was 16-year-old Megan Tan, whose sparkling performance in the vigorous finale of  Liu Xing's Reminiscences of Yunnan was distinguished by sheer steadiness and personality. Twin sisters Clara and Sophy Tan (below) were zhong ruan and guzheng soloists respectively in their composition Traveller, an engaging meditation on the Silk Road, which had contemporary touches provided by Govin Tan on tabla and Dayn Ng's electronica.

Doubly delighted: Clara & Sophy Tan
(or is it Sophy and Clara?)  enjoy the applause.

Quek Ling Kiong conducted the concert's latter half, which included another arrangement by Law, of the Nanyin favourite Melody Of Peach Blossom. Here, sanxian and dizi solos came to the fore. This was followed by Tan Kah Yong's arrangement of Nikolai Budashin's Fantasy On Two Russian Folksongs, where the ruan's kinship with its Russian counterpart, the triangular balalaika, became all the more apparent.

The evening closed with Law's arrangment of the popular war classic, Xin Hu Guang's Gada Meilin, starring the Mongolian Mai La Su and his traditional horsehead fiddle. This box-shaped 2-stringed instrument is bowed like an erhu but with a deeper voice of a cello. What enthralled the audience the most was Mai's throat singing, creating bitones with each exhalation, which got them applauding even before the act was up.

Two ensemble encores, one sentimental and the other fiery, closed a most satisfying evening of exuberant and spirited music-making.        

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