Monday, 4 July 2016

MAESTROS EXTRAVAGANZA / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Singapore Conference Hall
Friday (1 July 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 4 July 2016

One of the major events in the Singapore Chinese Orchestra's 20th anniversary season was a pair of extraordinary concerts led by three veteran conductors who have defined the history of the orchestra. There was a deliberate sequence in which the programme was rolled out, with the maestros taking their turns on the podium in increasing order of seniority.

SCO's present Music Director Yeh Tsung, who has helmed the orchestra since 2002, was first up. Yang Qing's arrangement of Tao Jin Ling was as festive as one could have possibly hoped for. Its parade of percussion and suonas, both onstage and offstage, stole the show and put an indelible  stamp of pomp and ceremony on the proceedings.

Equally raucous was young Hong Kong composer Gordan Fung Dic-Lun's Arise, You Lion Of Glory!, a pipa concerto that was awarded 1st prize at the 2015 Singapore International Competition for Chinese Orchestral Composition. The demanding solo part received a virtuosic performance from SCO pipa principal Yu Jia. More percussive than lyrical, the work built arch-like from a ritualistic beginning to the rowdy lion dance in full flight, before immersing in the tranquil rings of singing bowls.  

The youthful and ever-exuberant Yeh then made way for Hu Bing Xu, who was SCO's first Music Director from 1997 to 2000. His was a more measured stage demeanour, defined by wide movements of the baton which were no less vibrant. Heroine Mu Gui Ying (also known as Lady General Mu Takes Command), composed by a committee of four composers from the Beijing Central Philharmonic Orchestra and orchestrated by Yeo Puay Hian, was also the longest work in the concert.

Its four linked movements depicted the courage and heroism of the eponymous Northern Song dynasty woman general who had not only spared the life of her captive but also married him. The work's programmatic and rhapsodic nature made for an eventful listen, working itself into full battle gear as she unleashed her forces to final victory.

The concert's second half was directed by Choo Hoey, better known as the Conductor Emeritus of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. An ardent advocate of Chinese orchestral music since the late 1970s, he had served as a founding board member of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra and was instrumental in its formation.

Two movements from Liu Wen Jin's Great Wall Capriccio provided an airing of erhu principal Zhao Jian Hua's solo prowess. Memorial For Patriots was a long-breathed elegiac movement, culminating in an exquisite solo segment without orchestral accompaniment. Recalling its motto theme, the finale Looking Afar broke into a cheerful dance filled with whimsical moments.

Already into his eighties, Choo showed no hint of fatigue as he directed two movements from Law Wai Lun's epic score Zheng He: Admiral Of The Seven Seas. The Voyage depicted the eunuch explorer's overriding ambition and his entry into Nanyang, filled with exotic Indo-Malay themes and birdcalls from the woodwinds. In The Vow, this elaboration of Nanyang music included gamelan-like motifs on marimba and vibraphone as the music turned celebratory in the manner of a cross-cultural wedding.

As with the other conductors, the orchestra responded to Choo in full voice as the concert closed on a expectant high. Prolonged applause led to all three maestros back on stage for their final bows, and the acknowledgement of a little local music history being made.

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