Friday, 23 September 2016

NANYANG IMPRESSIONS / Singapore Chinese Orchestra and NAFA Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
& NAFA Chinese Orchestra
Lee Foundation Theatre
Wednesday (21 September 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 23 September 2016 with the title "Showcase of Nanyang music".

Nanyang Music by nomenclature is a new genre of music, coined by Yeh Tsung and the Singapore Chinese Orchestra. It had an official inauguration in 2006 with the First Singapore International Competition for Chinese Orchestral Composition. In actual fact, Nanyang music has always existed as indigenous music of the lands of Southeast Asia or works of local composers without such formal titles.

Nonetheless, the notion of incorporating Southeast Asian elements into Chinese instrumental music has take root, becoming a discrete artistic entity that cannot be ignored. This joint concert by the SCO and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Chinese Orchestra was a showcase of this music.

The SCO conducted by Quek Ling Kiong opened with young Singaporean composer Wang Chen Wei's Confluence, a short and colourful work that utilised the gamelan pelog scale in its principal melody. First heard on the guan and later on dizi following a yangqin cadenza, the Indonesian character of its graceful sashays was unshakeable.

More subtle was Chew Jun An's Colours Of Rain with its impressionistic hues in two discernible sections. The first was dissonant, with a torrential storm looming over pelting ostinatos. This contrasted with the second which approximated light precipitation, with a plaintive melody from dizis and sheng gliding over the harp's accompaniment.

The NAFA Chinese Chamber Ensemble performed without conductor, opening with Phoon Yew Tien's Divertimento on Malay Folk Songs. Lightly scored, plucked and bowed strings sang out short motifs and whole tunes from the popular Lenggang Kangkong, Rasa Sayang and Dayong Sampan. A larger ensemble then offered Law Wai Lun's A Walk In The Rain, which is a sympathetic treatment of a Hakka folk melody.

The SCO and NAFA Chinese Orchestra joined forces for the final two works of the concert. The first was Jiang Ying's Hot Melody of Southeast Asia, a pretentious piece of kitsch that just about matched its banal title. The term “hot” referred to the jazzy Afro-American idioms that so captivated Europe during the 1920s and 30s.

What was heard was merely a watered down imitation of Leroy Anderson's various light pieces, played with little regard to jazz harmonies or nuances. And its selling point from Southeast Asia? Perhaps the music is fit for an a-go-go club in Geylang or Patpong...

Far better was Sarawakian Simon Kong's Izpirazione II, an orchestral suite inspired by three thick-skinned East Malaysian fruits. Its movements Durian, Rambutan and Tarap corresponded to a prelude, scherzo and danzon. Durian was premised on a recurring short motif that spelt anticipation of an aromatic feast, while the fast and piquant Rambutan was built on the repetitive rhythms inherent in its spelling.

For the finale, conductor Quek got the audience clapping and stamping their feet to the raucous  dance of Tarap while he filled in with guttural tribal chants. The encore was par for the course of the mid-Autumn Festival as Hua Hao Yue Yuan made for a celebratory send-off. 

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