Monday, 14 November 2016

YO-YO MA & THE SILK ROAD ENSEMBLE / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday & Saturday (11 & 12 November 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 14 November 2016 with the title "Memorable festival of musical riches".

How does one get people to attend concerts of new music? One way is inviting a celebrity artist to perform, and audiences will pretty much swallow up whatever music is offered. That is a cynical way of looking at things, but what would explain Esplanade Concert Hall filled to rafters on two evenings featuring superstar Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma in mostly modern works?

To be fair, his imprimatur ensured much good contemporary music played by other excellent soloists with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Shui Lan got heard by far more people than otherwise. Widening our ears, breaking down barriers and fostering warm ties between diverse global cultures were always the mission of Ma's Silk Road Ensemble, truly a worthy cause for celebration.

To sweeten the deal, Elgar's Cello Concerto was programmed in the first evening. Here was a rerun of Ma's 1999 performances of the same work at Victoria Concert Hall, except he seemed to adopt broader tempos in the 1st and 3rd movements. His opening solo had that unmistakable air of an elegy, breathtaking in its intensity and gripping listeners by the lapels.

Its famous Adagio was a sigh heard across the century, all the more poignant taking place a hundred years after the monumental sacrifices of the Somme. The faster movements were nimbly negotiated, and the finale's catharsis – with pain and agony palpably etched on his face - was greeted with a standing ovation. Three solo encores were also rapturously received.  

Earlier in the evening, Ma played equal partner to SSO Principal Cellist Ng Pei-Sian in Sicilian cellist-composer Giovanni Sollima's Violoncelles, Vibrez!, a concerto grosso-like movement accompanied by strings. Whether in unison, interplay or counterpoint, the pair was nigh inseparable through its quasi-minimalist and neo-Romantic course; a wallow for string fanciers.

On the second evening, Ma joined Chinese sheng virtuoso Wu Tong in Duo by Zhao Lin. Belying its simple title, the double concerto was a lushly orchestrated score that resembled film music, of the James Bond meets Pirates Of The Caribbean variety. The sonorous solo wind and string parts were well integrated into the canvas, culminating in a deeply felt slow duet to close.

Soloists from the Silk Road Ensemble were also highlighted in concertante works. Kurdish-Iranian kamancheh (spike fiddle) player Kayhan Kalhor starred in his own Silent City (on Friday), another moving elegy for strings and percussion, this time to the million lives lost in the 1980s Iran-Iraq War. Hypnotic and meditative turned to breathless and bounding in Gallop Of A Thousand Horses (on Saturday), which got communal pulses racing.

Wu Man's pipa substituted for the Japanese biwa as she joined Kojiro Umekazi's shakuhachi (bamboo flute) in Takemitsu's November Steps, where contrasted but ultimately complimenting timbres broke the etheral orchestral spell of rapt stillness. Umekazi's own Cycles, a modern relook at Dvorak's Largo with recorded fragments of Walt Whitman's voice, opened the first evening's fare.

Mark Suter leads the percussionists.

The second evening's programme was more eclectic, with short chamber pieces to begin: Wu Tong's ceremonial Fanfare for suona and percussion, Mark Suter's Weavings for four percussionists wielding eight caxixis (Brazilian bead-filled shakers), Wu Man and Wu Tong's Duo for pipa and sheng, all of which exhibited a rare and exuberant artistry from the performers.

The full ensemble with orchestra also showcased Uzbek composer Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky's Sacred Signs, with five likeable movements that explored the Euro- and Central Asian folk influences which paved the way for Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring. Completing the memorable two-day festival of musical riches was Siamak Aghaei and Colin Jacobsen's arrangement of traditional Persian music, Ascending Bird, a exhilarating accelerando about a bird's metaphorical flight to the sun and spiritual transcendence.

Can you spot a casually attired Yo-Yo Ma
who performed in the general ensemble?
(He's in blue, near the extreme right.)

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