Monday, 1 August 2016

BEST OF CHINESE VIRTUOSOS / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Singapore Conference Hall
Saturday (30 July 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 1 August 2016 with the title "Virtuosity celebrated". 

The title of Singapore Chinese Orchestra's latest programme seems to imply the prowess of its guest soloists, who are justly celebrated in China. It also applies to composers of the works performed, two of whom were present at the concert conducted by Yeh Tsung which was digitally streamed live to  a worldwide audience.

The first was Luo Mai Shuo, whose Prince Yin Zhen's Paintings Of The Fair Lady was a suite in four movements inspired by twelve paintings of Qing dynasty empress Na La Shi, a classical beauty. Each movement comprised three portraits, each illustrating courtly activities undertaken by the royal.

Luo's sumptuous orchestration relied on instrumental colour and the use of cellos and basses, essentially Western instruments. The result resembled film music, the kind which Occidental composers employ to evoke the exotic Orient. This was however no pastiche, but cleverly crafted mood music to accompany the imagery of domesticated Manchus.

Dizi soloist Dai Ya then displayed a veritable arsenal of techniques and devices in Hao Wi Ya's Flowers Blooming On The Paths In The Fields. His was not the dainty timbre of pretty gentility, but a full throated variety which encompassed nuances and colours scarcely thought possible.

A slow and meditative introduction soon gave way to an animated dance that barring solo cadenzas for rhetoric's sake got progressively faster to a breathless conclusion. His no-holds-barred virtuosity also lent the nostalgic feel of antiquity. One imagines a Chinese version of the late great Jean-Pierre Rampal in his heyday. 

The other soloist guest was huqin exponent Jiang Ke Mei who played on three instruments in rising order of pitch. On erhu, she delivered Zhao Ji Ping's Love, the 3rd movement from Qiao's Grand Courtyard, a slow romance that built up to a festive high before receding to calmness. For Liu Yuan's arrangement of Hebei opera tune Hua Bang Zi, the shriller banhu held court with an authority that was totally commanding.

The highest pitched huqin was the diminutive jinghu, with a theatrical voice that mimicked the Beijing opera denizens in Wu Hua's arrangement of Night Thoughts, a scene from the popular Farewell My Concubine. Its big tune was carried in spectacular fashion, and all that was missing were the outlandish costumes and make-up.

Also making his appearance on the evening was Liu Chang Yuan, whose 2011 composition Hope Of The Future closed the concert. Here was an unabashed programmatic work in 6 connected sections that celebrated the centenary of the Chinese republic. The work portrayed revolution, war, sacrifice and heroism in typically percussive and poignant fashion. What Shostakovich could muster in his symphonies, Liu would outdo the Soviet on the occasion.

The sad melody first heard on low dizi in the 3rd section Tears, accompanied by a chorus of weeping flutes, was transformed into a celebratory paean in a galloping finale. Whether that was glorifying nationalism, socialism, pluralism or capitalism, it was difficult to say.

Maestro Yeh Tsung acknowledging
the composers who had come from afar.

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