ESSENCE OF NANYANG
Singapore Conference Hall
2 October 2015)
This review was published in The Straits Times on 5 October 2015
The Singapore Chinese Orchestra travels to
in mid-October to perform two concerts. The first of its two pre-tour concerts
displayed the orchestra's versatility that local audiences have come to know
and expect. Although titled Essence of Nanyang, the concert conducted by Yeh
Tsung offered more than just music inspired by Southeast Asian sources.
The first two works had a popular and rhythmic twist, beginning with Zhao Dong Sheng's arrangement of the 1920s Cantonese tune Han Tian Lei (Thunderstorm and Drought) which featured electric guitar, drum-set and Han Lei's guanzi in what may be described as in “Tempo di Hard Rock”.
Updated to 1960s and 70s sensibilities, it served as an overture to the divertissement by Eric Watson called Mahjong Kakis, which continued in a similar jazzy thread. Its buzzing, bustling percussive beat was infectious, like the enthusiasm displayed when four old friends get together to pit their wits on small stakes.
Altogether more serious was Tan Dun's Fire Ritual, where affairs of the ancient imperial courts are carried out like an elaborate piece of musical theatre. SCO Concertmaster Li Bao Shun was an impressive soloist on gaohu, erhu and zhonghu supported by orchestra and random soloists scattered throughout the hall. Percussion and ceremonial suonas led the way, punctuated by vocalisations from conductor Yeh, who took on a shaman-like role, as well as orchestral members.
Common to several Tan scores, the sound of paper flapping in the air, whistles and birdcalls were part of the musical fabric. The procession began dramatically but took on a more serene and sedate turn before the main themes were elucidated. Almost like a religious ceremony, the work closed with an impactful ritual silence.
The element of Nanyang came with a vengeance in the second half. First came an amuse-bouche in the form of Sabah-native Simon Kong's Rambutan, a rhythmically-driven movement from Izpirazione II, a suite based on East Malaysian fruits. Like the diminutive fruit itself, a single gulp and it was over.
The major work of the concert was three movements from Liu Yuan's Marco Polo and Princess Blue, a work commissioned for the Esplanade Opening Festival in 2002. Although titled a symphonic poem, it is more a cantata scored for two solo voices, mixed chorus and orchestra. It was based on Italian explorer Marco Polo's final mission for Kublai Khan, which was to escort his daughter from
Cathay via the sea-route to an
arranged marriage with the Prince of Persia. As one might have guessed, the two
develop feelings for each other as the voyage passes a “little red dot” along
Tristan And Isolde it is not. Even the presence of two top Chinese opera stars, tenor Warren Mok and soprano Wu Bi Xia who sang with amplification, could not disguise its banalities. Eden In The East, a duet taking on the style of a Neapolitan serenade (Marco Polo was Venetian) accompanied by la-la-la's from the SYC Ensemble Singers, was merely one of many cringeworthy moments.
The eventual parting of the ways in Eternal Love was no Liebestod (love-death), but the poignant memory of a song which unites their spirits forever, and its tune is none other than... Singapura, O Singapura (that sunny island set in the sea). Energised with familiarity, the singers and orchestra then rightly whipped up an apotheosis worthy of a Shostakovich finale, which brought on the applause and no little cheers.
To be fair, Yeh and his charges gave this music an outing that is unlikely to be bettered anytime soon. It is hoped that Hongkongers respond favourably to its share of exoticisms and novelty value.