Tuesday, 26 January 2016

SETTS #2 / South-Eastern Ensemble for Today's and Tomorrow's Sounds / Review

South-Eastern Ensemble for
Today's & Tomorrow's Sounds
Esplanade Recital Studio
Sunday (24 January 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 26 January 2016 with the title "Madhatter's party with serving of afternoon tea".

The second concert by the South-Eastern Ensemble for Today's & Tomorrow's Sounds (SETTS), a new music ensemble formed wholly by professional musicians, was by far a less anarchic affair than its debut last year. It nevertheless occupies an important position for the performance of new local works once undertaken by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra's New Music Forum.

The 70-minute concert presented works by seven composers, including two world premieres and two Singapore premieres. Emily Koh's Implodex! (Singapore Premiere) for six musicians opened the proceedings. Conducted by SETTS co-founder Christoph Wichert, its configuration had strings (violin, viola and cello) placed onstage, complemented by offstage woodwinds (flute, oboe and clarinet).

Its title delves upon the origin of matter and anti-matter, with fragments of sound passed around the hall, the concordant alternating with the discordant. Its climax was a solo cadenza from oboist Joost Flach who went on to tear up pieces of paper, symbolic of a point of no return, before all the musical parts coalescing in a serene C major chord.

Receiving a World Premiere was full-time National Serviceman Tan Tiag Yi's The Quiet scored for string quartet (Christina Zhou & Nanako Takata on violins, Janice Tsai on viola and Lin Juan on cello) and marimba. Iskandar Rashid's mellow marimba strikes provided a gentle counterpoint to pizzicatos and bowing from the strings in this short movement, which revealed in its subdued mood the influence of Shostakovich.

Chen Zhangyi's Lost In Order was composed ten years ago, with the vastly contrasting timbres of Roberto Alvarez's flute pitted against Iskandar's assembly of four timpanis. The work began with the ennui of routine and repetition, escalated by an increasing urgency for the instrumentalists to break out from habit. They do so with an abrupt end to the piece.

Indonesian composer Ivan Tangkalung's Morning Call for solo bassoon was virtuosically tossed off by Wichert, with his instrument the channelling a cockerel's chanticleer and the urban sounds of a city readying for a day's busyness and business.

Zechariah Goh Toh Chai's Four Taiwanese Aboriginal Songs for wind quintet will be the most often performed work of all these. The reason is simple. Like a modern-day Bartok or Kodaly, its treatment of two songs and dances from the Pai-wan and Bei-nan tribes is both idiomatic and engaging. The performance by Alvarez, Flach, Colin Tan (clarinet), Wichert and Alan Kartik (French horn) will be hard to better.

Works by two Malaysian composers completed the show. Yii Kah Hoe's Cheers (Singapore premiere) was literally a madhatter's party, with Alvarez and pianist Shane Thio punctuating their solo parts with a serving of afternoon tea, complete with the clinking of teapots and teacups, noisy stirring of spoons, obligatory slurping and a toast of “cheers!”

The World Premiere of Wong Chee Yean's Six Sketches was a complete success. The full ensemble of strings, winds and percussion engaged in its short scenes from Greek mythology, drawn from Ovid's Metamorphosis. Among its movements involved the sinuous flute as Narcissus gazing at his own shadow, a beautiful duet for oboe and clarinet representing Orpheus and Euridice, a lively Dionysian scherzo, and a string fugue as Arethusa flees before transforming into a fountain to a wind serenade.

Inventive and surprising as before, SETTS #3 on 1 May at The Arts House is keenly awaited.  

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