Saturday, 31 October 2015


Lee Foundation Theatre
Thursday (29 October 2015)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 31 October 2015 with the title "Two tales of Romeo And Juliet".

There is a Romeo and Juliet tragic love story in every culture, and this concert by the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Orchestra conducted by Lim Yau brought together the Chinese version with Shakespeare's in two hours of music. It was a good example of concert programming bridging the East and the West.

Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, better known as the “Butterfly Lovers”, is a well-loved and enduring Chinese tale. The concerto jointly composed by Chen Gang and He Zhanhao of 1959 was originally scored for violin and western symphony orchestra, but the Chinese have rightfully laid claim to their heritage by scoring it for huqin solo and Chinese instruments.

This evening's version was a composite featuring gaohu and western instruments. The soloist Sunny Wong, head of Chinese instrumental studies in NAFA, has a claim to fame. His father Wong On Yuen was the pioneer in playing the concerto on the gaohu during the 1970s. This “ownership” was immediately apparent by the way his instrument sang through the concerto.

The gaohu approximates the high human operatic voice in a way the violin cannot. The tonal inflexions, slurs and slides of Beijing opera is often elusive to non-native musicians, and here Wong made it sound totally natural. His playing alternated between moving plaintiveness, like a Chinese version of bel canto, and dazzling pyrotechnics. The use of dizi, played by Sun Rui, instead of the flute also added an element of authenticity. Wong's duet with cellist Li Jingli as the lovestruck couple met provided tender moments.   

The orchestra, whose part is unabashedly sentimental, backed this enterprise to the hilt, and there were plenty of cheers from the full-house audience after its conclusion. Very soon, the ensemble had to switch gears for 13 movements from Prokofiev's popular ballet Romeo and Juliet. These were extracted from three orchestral suites which the Russian composer had devised, and performed in the order of appearance in the ballet.

Thus the narrative of the story was not jumbled or lost, beginning with the dissonant cacophony and heavy plodding that is the feuding families Montagues And Capulets. The emotional roller-coaster provided by the sequence of scenarios and dances was well handled by the young orchestra, augmented by faculty members and guest players from Taiwan's National Dong Hwa University.

Strings were very disciplined, casting a fine sheen in sweeping lyrical moments, which were many. Brass and woodwind were somewhat exposed in the Minuet, but made up by fine showings elsewhere. As a group, the highly dramatic and violent Death Of Tybalt, contrasted with the rapturous Romeo And Juliet Before Parting became the score's emotional high points.

Even celesta and piano had their say in the gentle tinkling that was in the Aubade. With Romeo At Juliet's Grave, the final number, an hour of passion had passed by all too swiftly. The NAFA Orchestra has much to recommend, and its regular concerts – now requiring no tickets for admission – are to be keenly anticipated. 

No comments: