Lee Foundation Theatre
7 April 2016)
This review was published in The Straits Times on 9 April 2016
The oxymoron in the title of this concert by the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Chinese Orchestra arises from the fact that Chinese orchestras of today do not just perform the classics. They have to adapt to performing new music and non-Chinese compositions. This versatility has enabled an ancient art to survive, thrive and remain relevant to today's audiences.
The concert's first half, conducted by Moses Gay, opened with two jazzy numbers. Law Wai Lun's Old Shanghai was specially composed as the prelude to music for the 1930s silent movie The Goddess starring the tragically short-lived Ruan Lingyu. Infectiously rhythmic winds were the highlight, contrasted with the rigourous beat of percussion that dominated Law and Tan Kah Yong's more sultry arrangement of One Night in Beijing.
Three familiar American numbers allowed the orchestra to relive the “big band” era. Eric Watson's arrangement of Gershwin's Strike Up The Band unfortunately saw the melody submerged beneath an overzealous march rhythm, but it got better for Law's arrangement of W.C.Handy's St Louis Blues with a piano part added, and the more relaxed trot of Leroy Anderson's Horse and Buggy, arranged by Sim Boon Yew.
The big work was an abridged version of Law's The Celestial Web, with confident drama students Lei Jian and Kang Ying Yu narrating poetry by Cultural Medallion recipient Tan Swie Hian, with subject matter relating to the goddesses Vasumitra and Gaia, brotherhood of man and the eternal cosmos. The recitations were crisply delivered amid celebratory music, and only non-Sinophones need fret about the absence of English translations.
The second half was conducted Quek Ling Kiong, who exuded the same exuberant energy as Yeo Puay Hian's Hard Rock 2002, which basked in a drum set and electric bass. He also introduced the familiar strains of Watson's Mahjong Kakis, a most congenial original work about friends indulging in a favourite pastime which evoked no little memories of 1980s television series themes.
Almost an overdose of nostalgia arrived in Sim's arrangement of Jim Lim's music for the short film Xiao Zhi Tiao (Little Note) by Royston Tan. The orchestra accompanied a screening of the movie about the mutual love of mother and child through the years, a tearjerker that invariably gets viewers clutching onto their Kleenex.
This concert of variety closed with Wang Dan Hong's Colours of Jiangnan, a single-movement triple concerto featuring soloists Sunny Wong (Head of Chinese Instrumental Studies, on erhu), Yu Jia (pipa) and Yin Zhi Yang (dizi). Arguably the most traditional of the works, it was veritable showcase for the varied timbres and techniques of all three instruments in solo and not too complicated polyphony.
The orchestra's accompaniment was both sensitive and non-intrusive, allowing the soloists to stand out in the limelight. Its most important achievement, however, was its mastery of different styles and genres, which will stand the players in good stead for future performing careers.