Friday, 9 October 2015

SINGAPURA / Singapore International Festival of Music / Review

Singapore International Festival of Music
Gallery, The Arts House
Wednesday (7 October 2015)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 9 October 2015 with the title "Protest song warns against apathy".

At first acquaintance, Singapura, the only concert segment of the Singapore International Festival of Music (SIFOM) to feature local music, appeared to be an excuse to bring together works from Singapore, Malaysia and Japan. After sitting through its hour-long duration, the concert became greater than the sum of its parts.

Phoon Yew Tien's Separation Of The Newly Wed (1987) was a setting of Tang dynasty poet Du Fu's poem about a couple torn by the onset of war. Soprano Ashley Chua's Chinese words played equal partner to Audi Goh's oboe, Adrian Wee's erhu and Chua Yew Kok's pipa in an intensely moving work where fraught emotions were matched by the imaginative playing. The drum-like rhythms struck by the pipa provided the necessary dramatics.

The symbolism of the forcible separation of Singapore in 1965 from the newly formed Malaysia before any meaningful consummation became all the more relevant. War and conflict was the theme of this Festival, and even though the late Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996) was pacifist by nature, his gentle work Rain Spell (1982) provided voices of contention.

Flute (played by Cheryl Lim) and harp (Lee Yun Chai) were among his favourite compositional instruments. Their dreamy tones, joined by the mellowness of the vibraphone (Iskandar Rashid) and clarinet (Vincent Goh), were sharply contrasted with Chenna Lu's piano, where metallic chords were augmented by the strumming of its strings. With Takemitsu, sound textures often trumped thematic cohesion.

Tan Chan Boon's Conversation for Horn & Piano (1993) was a fantasy on Taiwanese tunes in three movements. The virtuosic solo was expertly helmed by Alexander Oon, with the piano part (Lu again) given the freedom of playful asides and surprising harmonies. The lightest work on the programme was followed by the densest, Malaysian composer Chong Kee Yong's Yellow Dust (1994, revised 2015) for string quartet.

Its title refers to the loess storms that bury ancient cities like Xi'an, in turn concealing and revealing historical findings through the millennia. Its highly dissonant language, interspersed with shards and fragments of melody, carries on the legacy of string quartets by Bartok and Ligeti. These extremes were handled with total discipline and much conviction by violinists Seah Huan Yuh and Liu Yi Retallick, violist Jonathan Lee and cellist Chan Si Han.  

Three choral works by Leong Yoon Pin (1931-2011), performed sympathetically by Schola Cantorum led by Albert Tay, completed the concert. Dragon Dance, one of his most-performed works, is a quasi-fugal chant of the onomatopoeic “qiang-dong-qiang” of the drums, punctuated by the rolled R's in the flight of silk balls. His arrangement of the Javanese tune Bengawan Solo remains popular as always.

In between was his unpublished Nightmare (1988), with texts by Angeline Yap, which ranks as the soft-spoken composer's most controversial work. It is prefaced by the disclaimer, “To care for a country / Is not always to be seen to praise / To scold (and to laugh at oneself) is also to love,” proclaimed by the conductor. Although garbed in the English choral tradition, it warns against a culture of complacency, apathy and blind obeisance.

No names or political parties were cited, but one soon recognises who are “the led” and who are the “men of straw”. In this prescient protest song, the patriotic Leong (and Yap) had prophetically predicted the result of the 2015 General Elections. 

1 comment: said...

Little known facts about “Nightmare” – written 1977, and published in “Collected Poems” by Angeline Yap as part of the Shell Literary Series (publisher Department of English Language & Literature, NUS). The preface consists of a poem by Angeline Yap entitled “9 August, 1976”, also first published in “Collected Poems”- i.e.
“To care for a country / Is not always to be seen to praise / To scold is also to love,”
The words in parentheses – (and to laugh at oneself) – were later added by Yoon Pin – “to lighten the tone” of the piece.