Monday, 7 March 2016

DAZZLING STRINGS / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Singapore Conference Hall
Saturday (5 March 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 7 March 2016 with the title "Dazzled by skilled musicians".

This concert's title did not tell the full picture of Singapore Chinese Orchestra's outing with well-known Chinese conductor Tang Muhai, once a protege of Herbert von Karajan. Although string concertos hogged the limelight, a big impression was made by the other works, beginning with Guo Wen Jing's Dianxi Folk Tunes.

Despite an unpretentious title, its three movements were ambitious in recounting the history and culture of the rugged tribes that inhabited remote mountainous regions of Yunnan. Vigorously punched-out percussion beats and strident choruses of suonas (onstage and offstage) sounded out in the opening Ava Mountain. This was contrasted with mellower marimba and xylophone textures in the gentler but animated Jino Dance, which had a trio of dongxiao (flutes) conjure up a pastoral atmosphere in its central section.

It was all thunder and bluster in the final Sacrifices.Fire.Spirits movement which had a similar raucous and primal energy as the close of Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring. This epic score which merged ancient Chinese, modern Western and film music influences was tautly held together by Tang's magisterial control, which never flagged for a single moment.

More convivial was young composer Qi Hao Di's single-movement Dazzle Of Fantasy with SCO's Zhu Lin as erhu soloist. His concertante part was stand-out virtuosic yet allowed to blend with the orchestra's string textures. The music was impressionist in style, as if crafted by a Chinese Delius, culminating with a cadenza and an ebullient flourish to close.  

The second half began with Hongkonger Stephen Yip's Nine Actors, a winning entry in the 2011 Singapore International Competition for Chinese Orchestral Composition. The most avant-garde work on show, its expression of ceremonial and dramatic aspects of  Chinese theatre was purely musical, with a narrative flowing in seven linked sections. The work's incorporation into SCO's Nanyang music canon was by virtue of its clever use of Hokkien, Teochew and Hakka themes woven into an elaborate embroidery.

The populist element of this concert was surely Chen Gang and He Zhanhao's Butterfly Lovers Concerto, featuring the conductor's prodigious 11-year-old daughter Susan Tang. Her diminutive presence was compensated by a big and confidently projected sound, despite being placed right smack in the orchestra's ranks, between Principal Cellist Xu Zhong and harpist Ma Xiao Lan.

A distinctive advantage was to be had by her close proximity with Xu, as their duo passages were symbolic of the forbidden love between Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai. Conductor Tang  conducted from the floor, so he did not stand over his soloist, besides allowing him to walk around on stage unimpeded as he waved his baton.

The younger Tang's solo effort was an extremely promising one rather than the finished article, and she will surely blossom with time, like her former-prodigy mother, the Korean pianist Ju Hee Suh who performed the uncredited piano part.  The concert closed with the popular encore Hua Hao Yue Yuan, surely the quintessential Chinese work to represent happiness and contentment.  

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