Monday, 7 November 2016

THE NYONYA JOURNEY / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Singapore Conference Hall
Friday (4 November 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 7 November 2016 with the title "Spicing up Peranakan tunes". 

Peranakan culture came about through Chinese immigrants travelling down the South China Sea to settle and go native in the lands of Southeast Asia, which they referred to as Nanyang. The inimitable melting pot of Chinese and Indo-Malay indigenous cultures came to define their lifestyles, cuisine, dressing, language and mores.

This Singapore Chinese Orchestra concert conducted by Yeh Tsung featured four world premieres of works celebrating the Peranakan experience, each different and individual in its own way. Chinese composer Xie Xiang Ming's Colours opened the concert, its repetitive short and rhythmic motifs on winds and plucked strings forming a patchwork that recalled minimalism and the patterns found on local fabrics and tiles. There was a semblance of melody from the cellos but that was not further developed with the work's abrupt ending.

Subtle were the local influences in East Malaysian Simon Kong Su Leong's Tok Panjang (Nyonya Delicacies) that relived the spices and flavours to be found in a festive long table feast. There were four linked parts, entitled Teh Mata Kuching And Wine, Festival Dishes, Nyonya Kueh and Areca, which whetted the appetite for something equivalent to sambal belacan, but this was not fully sated. Humming from the players closed the work quietly as bibiks delved on the pleasures of betel nut.

The most aromatic work was Chong Kee Yong's Celebration of Faith, which employed four ensembles: the main orchestra, a troupe of five offstage musicians and two groups of winds on opposite balconies. Beginning with a crackling old gramophone recording of ceremonial music, the music soon became an Ivesian symphony of aural assails, each group operating independently of each other. The heady piece closed with a clangourous procession of the quintet marching out of the hall and receding into the distance.

The longest work was Dick Lee's The Journey of Lee Kan, the story of his ancestor seven times removed who left the Fujian town of Yong Chun at the age of 18 in 1776 to make a living in Malacca. He started a local family line but eventually returned to China, possibly from irresistible homesickness. Scored for orchestra, chorus (Vocal Consort) and two soloists, this was more a cantata than an oratorio unless one considers ancestor worship a religion.

Lee himself gave a short introduction, humourously referring to his forebear as “The First Mad Chinaman”, referencing his bestselling 1990 album The Mad Chinaman. Singer-actor George Chan sang the eponymous part while soprano Felicia Teo Kaixin was his love interest Tuan Neo. Both singers were amplified, but the volume could have been further boosted for more clarity above the orchestral throng.

The music never got out of Lee's comfort zone of writing for musicals in English, with pretty tunes and agreeable harmonies par for the course. SCO Composer-in-Residence Eric Watson's expert orchestration added to the colour, but there was no further room for an edginess which would have made the work more memorable.

Had the words been in Hokkien, Malay or both, the outcome might have been quite different, and likely more authentic. As a musical experiment, this was a worthy effort that can be further developed. 

Composers and colleagues:
Eric Watson (2nd from left),
Chong Kee Yong (3rd from right) and
Simon Kong Su Leong (extreme right).

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