Tuesday, 18 October 2016

...AND THERE WAS NOTHING / TO Ensemble / Review

TO Ensemble
Singapore International Festival of Music
Play Den, The Arts House
Sunday (16 October 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 18 October 2016 with the title "Unique brand of crossover jazz".

Trust locally-trained and mostly self-taught composer and jazz-cum-crossover pianist Tze Toh to come up with yet another post-apocalyptic and end-of-days scenario to spice up his latest concert. Having gained a certain notoriety from his Land With No Sun series of concerts, his most recent offering ...And There Was Nothing had as its back drop another science fiction-inspired story involving cosmology, eschatology and artificial intelligence.

To the casual concert-goer, all this might come across as mumbo jumbo, but it was merely an elaborate front for an unusual piano quintet that was in effect a 10-movement modern jazz symphony. For this concert, the ensemble was deliberately pared down to involve only five soloists (including Toh on the piano) and with no accompanying ripieno group.

This spareness worked to its advantage, as the sound of each instrument became more transparent. Christina Zhou's violin contrasted with the lower tones of Benjamin Wong's viola, both playing the traditional classical string parts. The main leitmotifs and themes for the work was cast in G minor, which accomodated Lazar Sebastine's Carnatic violin which had a more ornamental role.       

Teo Boon Chye's saxophone was the leading star, and it was he who opened in Earth, the first chapter. His was a dark and dusky tone, one which experimented with atonal lines at the outset but ultimately reverted to more familiar tonalities.

The first four chapters were oppressive in mood, as if portending a bleak fate for the planet and mankind, and it was in Chapter Five: Beginning / Pan Gu when the atmosphere lightened finally. Sebastine turned percussionist, swapping his violin for a drum, over which Teo's sax and Wong's viola soared unimpeded in this most exuberant movement.  

Toh was ever conscious that textures of each instrument were to be clearly differentiated. In Chapter Six, which had seven separate titles, a drone from the viola contrasted with caterwauling from the violin, while the next chapter saw both instruments in a tender duet. Elsewhere, the Western violin and Indian violin, both operating on different scales, duelled for primacy.

The Seventh to Ninth Chapters had no titles, except for question marks. Here the future of life on earth was being pondered; are we doomed or will we be saved? Chapter Eight saw all five soloists thick in action, and the ancient concerto grosso of the baroque period was all but being relived.

By now, most would have been totally confused by the narrative of the work, but the Tenth and final Chapter (no question marks and deliberately left blank) was to prove a watershed. Gloomy and troubling G minor had morphed into a reassuring G major at the end, thus suggesting salvation at hand.         

TO Ensemble's audience was a small but receptive one, and given Toh's zeal in proselytising his unique brand of crossover-jazz-world music, this should change sooner than later.

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