Monday, 27 July 2015

SYMPHONIC GIFTS / Singapore National Youth Orchestra & Singapore Youth Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore National Youth Orchestra &
Singapore Youth Chinese Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (24 July 2015)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 27 July 2015 with the title "Youth orchestras make history and music together".

This will go down in history as a first ever collaboration between the Singapore National Youth Orchestra (SNYO) and the Singapore Youth Chinese Orchestra (SYCO), both National Projects of Excellent now under the umbrella of the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth. Its respective conductors Leonard Tan and Quek Ling Kiong (below) took turns to lead and play chatty and convivial hosts for the concert.

Western instruments conducted by Tan opened with Leong Yoon Pin's Dayong Sampan Overture, not merely an arrangement of the popular Malay song but a symphonic fantasy. Amid the obligatory dissonances and busy counterpoint emerged that catchy tune on solo oboe, accompanied by violin glissandi. The SNYO gave an assured account of what must be Singapore's best known orchestral composition.

SYCO then followed, conductor-less, to perform works of two popular genres: Jiangnan Shizhu and Chuida, representing a culture of strings with winds, and winds with percussion respectively. Happy Times was a showpiece of huqin prowess that progressed from slow to very fast. Li Min Xiong's A Well-Matched Fight featured a raucous duel between solo drummer Lim Rei centrestage (above) and seven of her percussionist partners against the entire band, with both groups coming out first among equals.

Guest violinist Siow Lee Chin was the glamourous soloist in Kam Kee Yong's Kuang Xiang Qu (Chinese Rhapsody) for symphony orchestra, performing its fiendish free-wheeling part with the swashbuckling verve as if it were Ravel's Tzigane. The orchestration was not particularly Chinese, veering more towards the music for biblical epics by Bloch and Rozsa, and the end result brought out the cheers.

All ears were pricked for the second half's music, specially orchestrated for both ensembles combined. At this point, it could be said this was an exercise symbolic of solidarity between instrumentalists across the cultural divide rather than something truly practicable. But only time will tell.

Eric Watson's Tapestries – Time Dances now resembled a concerto grosso, with a core group of three Chinese instruments (ruan, dizi and guzheng) and four Western instruments (violin, cello, French horn and harp) backed by the over-hundred-strong mega-orchestra. One outcome was that Chinese instruments stood out in the solo parts because of their penetrating timbres, while violins, violas and cellos overwhelmed the huqins when massed strings sang. At parts, Watson's creation began to sound like those of his compatriot, Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Wang Chenwei's The Sisters' Islands took on a distinctly Nanyang slant, with its use of Indo-Malay melodies, and the symphonic poem had a particularly effective spell depicting an attack by pirates of the Singapore Straits. One only wonders which orchestra does a blown conch shell belong to. Both pieces were led by conductor Quek.

The concert ended with Jeremiah Li's arrangement of Kelly Tang's Symphonic Suite On A Set Of Local Tunes, helmed by conductor Tan. This medley mixed the Malay song Chan Mali Chan with Dick Lee's Home and Bunga Sayang and NDP favourite Singapore Heartbeat, with a Hollywood-like vibe. Home was accounted by solo erhu accompanied by yangqin, which lent a tender touch, and Tang's trademark in-joke was to throw in the fanfare from The Magnificent Seven, not once but twice.   

As an encore, the audience was given permission to whip out their handphones and wave their built-in torches (above) to the strains of Home. After which they gamely rode off into the sunset. 

Guest violinist Siow Lee Chin with Guest-of-Honour
Sim Ann, conductors Quek Ling Kiong & Leonard Tan,
with board members of the SSO & SCO.


I am grateful to Professor Lim Seh Chun for offering this most interesting piece of history:

The SYO and SYCO has collaborated before, but way back in 1971. The two orchestras performed in several joint concerts in Singapore and in Lausanne, Switzerland at the International Festival of Youth Orchestras. The concerts were led by the legendary Goh Soon Tioe and two younger conductors Goh Say Meng and Lee Suat Lin. 

Members of the SYO then included Prof Lim himself, conductor Lim Soon Lee, violinist Tan Peng Tow (who was the soloist in Mozart's Violin Concerto No.5), her brother Tan Peng Chin and neurologist Prof Benjamin Ong. 

The SYCO reads like a Who's Who of Chinese orchestra music today, including the composer Phoon Yew Tien, conductors Lum Yan Sin, Yeo Siew Wee and Lee Hoon Piek, recording-meister Goh Aik Yew, high fidelity reviewer Tham Chaik Kong and SCO veteran Sim Boon Yew.

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