Monday, 11 April 2016

JOSHUA BELL WITH SCO / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (9 April 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 11 April 2016 with the title "Brilliant musical blend".

One of the major fixtures of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra's 20th Anniversary celebrations was this Gala Concert with renowned American violinist Joshua Bell as soloist. Getting him to Singapore was a coup in itself, but the question that ran through the minds of many was how he would fare in a first-ever collaboration with an orchestra of Chinese instruments.

This would be non sequitur, as Bell just needed to be his usual virtuosic self in standard fare like Vivaldi, Saint-Saëns and Sarasate. So the more pertinent question would be how the SCO led by Music Director Yeh Tsung does in repertoire that was the reserve of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. The results could be summed up as thus: very well indeed.

This was helped by very sympathetic arrangements by Eric Watson, Phoon Yew Tien and Law Wai Lun. Take Watson's take on Vivaldi's Spring from The Four Seasons with a much reduced ensemble for example. The accompanying huqins were exemplary in lightness and transparency of textures, while Xu Zhong's cello and Qu Jian Qing's yangqin (Chinese dulcimer) served perfectly as modified basso continuo.

Equally idiomatic was Phoon's transcription of Saint-Saëns' Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso. Bell's effortless playing and sumptuous tone were, of course, the highlights, and yangqin and harp were up there with him in the slow section. But who would have thought the sheng running away with the melody with Bell's violin spinning arpeggios at full tilt in the brilliant conclusion?

The concert also presented several non-concertante works, which was a veritable showcase of the orchestra's strengths. Ruan Kun Shen's Da Ge opened the evening with an impressive parade of percussion, climaxing in Jin Shi Yi's pungent suona cadenza. Liu Xing's Invisible Sword simulated the digital dexterity of electronic music with chirpy dizis colouring the jovial mood in this scherzo-like piece.

After the interval, Wu Hou Yuan's Yu Tang Chun skilfully melded Beijing opera themes with the Western prelude and fugue, with plucked strings (pipas, liuqins and ruans), yangqins and percussion as the protagonists. Liu Tian Hua's Song of Birds in a Desolate Mountain presented bowed huqins with an open season for the mimicry of birdsong.

Bell returned with an authentic Chinese work, Mao Yuan's Xin Chun Le (A Joyous New Year) in an arrangement by Chuan Joon Hee, and how he captured its festive feeling with a spirited spiel complete with portamentos truly resounded with the audience. The applause rang louder, after which the orchestra reciprocated by playing Western music, in Watson's highland-inspired The Ceilidh, which has folksong O Waly Waly (sometimes sung as The Water is Wide) as its centrepiece.   

The concert concluded with Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs) in Law's orchestration. Again Bell's mastery of this warhorse was unquestionable, with the orchestra supporting his every note and phrase to the hilt.

A standing ovation was the immediate response, and although Bell came for his curtain call sans violin at the first instance, he had to return for an encore. “Derived from American music,” he announced to chortles from the audience, and that turned out to be Variations on Yankee Doodle (his version of Henri Vieuxtemps' Souvenir d'Amérique) which brought down the house.  


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