Monday, 17 August 2015

YELLOW RIVER! / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Singapore Conference Hall
Saturday (15 August 2015)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 17 August 2015 with the title "Yellow River legends live on".

It seems inconceivable that any Chinese or Sinophile today be unaware of the Yellow River Piano Concerto or Yellow River Cantata. Like the geographical Huang He, both works are symbols of Chinese history and national sorrow, which have now transcended to represent Chinese patriotism and pride.

The composer of the Yellow River Cantata, Macau-born Xian Xing Hai (1905-1945), occupies a position in Chinese music not unlike that of Shostakovich or Prokofiev in modern Russian music. In commemorating the 110th anniversary of his birth, Singaporeans are reminded that he spent ten years of his youth here, and was an alumnus of Yangzhen (Yeung Ching) School. He played in the school band and his musical talent was honed here before returning to China.

Two orchestral works opened the Xian Xing Hai tribute by the Singapore Chinese Orchestra conducted by Yeh Tsung. Phoon Yew Tien's rousing orchestration of Xian's Behind Enemy Lines incorporated its martial strains with the more optimistic Er Yue Li Lai (Second Lunar Month), both clothed in patriotic fervour. Law Wai Lun's A Decade Of Xing Hai In The Lion City was a brief reminiscence of Xian's melodies with the old Yangzhen School song accompanied by annotated archival photos.

Two soloists from the Shanghai Opera House sang a trio of songs orchestrated by Phang Kok Jun. Baritone Tao Kuo was a commanding presence in Ye Ban Ge Sheng (Phantom Lover), a song about midnight trysts. Soprano Liu Fei's two songs, Second Lunar Month and Tie Ti Xia De Ge Nu (Showgirl Under The Iron Heel), took on a socialist slant, extolling a fruitful springtime (to produce more patriots) and decrying the trials and tribulations of being a songstress.

The first half concluded with the Yellow River Concerto, composed in 1969 by a committee of six members of Beijing's Central Philharmonic Society by collating the most memorable melodies from Xian's Yellow River Cantata and recast into four movements. A shamelessly virtuosic vehicle, it brought together various technical devices from Romantic piano concertos by Liszt, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and Grieg into one orgiastic whole.

Young Chinese pianist Sun Yingdi, winner of the 2005 Liszt International Piano Competition, spared no effort in thundering out its outsized cadenzas, cascading arpeggios and stampeding octaves. But there were tender moments too, with Lim Sin Yeo's bangdi evocatively opening the 3rd movement, Wrath Of The Yellow River, and Sun's excellent repeated note technique in simulating a pipa. So was this a nationalistic work or a Communist one? The inclusion of The East Is Red and the Internationale at the finale's apotheosis strongly points to the latter.

Xian's eponymous cantata, composed within six days in 1939 during the Sino-Japanese war, occupied the concert's second half. By now, many of its melodies would have been familiar, but despite its heroic tones, it is a more nuanced work than the concerto. Crosstalk exponent Huang Jia Qiang was the narrator, and his opening gambit, “Have you been to the Yellow River?” set the tone. A combined choir formed by the Shanghai Opera House Chorus and Nanyang Khek Community Guild Choir delivered a message of struggle and ultimate victory against all invaders.

Baritone Tao and soprano Liu sang one movement each, but it was the 5th movement's animated dialogue between Everymen Zhang and Wang, sung by tenors Xu Xiao Ming and Yu Hao Lei (above) from the choir contributed a folk-like charm to the proceedings. The orchestra  provided excellent support through its eight movements, the original context of the overplayed concerto being laid bare. Love or loathe them, the legends of the Yellow River will live on as long as the Chinese walk this planet.    

Post concert: SCO Music Director Yeh Tsung
meets with founding SSO Music Director Choo Hoey,
who was also instrumental in founding the SCO in 1997. 

No comments: