Monday, 16 January 2017

A MUSIC VOYAGE AROUND THE ISLAND / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Victoria Concert Hall
Saturday (14 January 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 16 January 2017 with the title "Playful take on Singapore-inspired music".

Nanyang music featured prominently in this Singapore Chinese Orchestra concert held for the first time in Victoria Concert Hall since its post-renovation opening, reason being that SCO's Singapore Conference Hall home is undergoing its own refurbishment. The sound of Chinese instruments resonated strongly in this reverberant space, opening with Zhang Xiao Feng's Singapura Overture conducted by SCO Assistant Conductor Moses Gay.

Its opening was Western before becoming distinctly Malay with its play of drumming. Then various motifs of a deconstructed familiar local tune appeared in whiffs and wafts. It took more than a few seconds to identify Di Tanjong Katong, which was never heard in its full glory with the music galloping like The Magnificent Seven theme to a raucous close.

More original in conception was Simon Kong's Izpirazione II, its three varied movements inspired by local fruits – Durian, Rambutan and Tarap – and taking the form of a prelude, scherzo and finale. Winds and percussion coloured the music's pungent aroma, joined by the musicians' synchronised clapping and stamping of feet as the suite drew to a colourful end.

There were two concertante works that offered very different aspects of solo string prowess. The first was Wang Dan Hong's Amannisha, named after the 15th century Uyghur singer-dancer who defined the muqam musical tradition of Central Asia. Conducted by SCO Resident Conductor Quek Ling Kiong, Chinese erhu soloist Lu Yiwen's spectacular showing began with gentle musings in the upper registers before getting earthy in a vigourous and rhapsodic dance that rocked the hall to its rafters.

Lu's immaculate deportment contrasted with the free-and-easy improvisations of former Singapore Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Alexander Souptel in Phoon Yew Tien's Gypsy Rhapsody. This medley included Monti's Csardas, Enesco's First Romanian Rhapsody and variations on the Russian song Ochi Chornye (Dark Eyes) in a riotous mash-up. Souptel was his usual irrepressible self, cavorting on stage with the connivance of conductor Yeh Tsung, including a cheeky send-up to Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto for good measure.

Not to be outdone, the three conductors did their own solos in the world premiere of Journey Around Singapore by SCO Composer-in-Residence Eric Watson. Hoping to catch Yeh on piano, Quek tackling percussion and Gay playing the erhu, while taking turns to conduct? Here was the piece, destined to be a National Day Parade hit.

A musical travelogue in all but name, the work employed popular tunes representing four compass points: Sentosa Isle (South), Di Tanjong Katong (East), Voices From The Heart (West), the Chinese classic Horse-Racing and Rossini's William Tell Overture (North, specifically the Turf Club at Kranji) before closing with the calypso rhythm of Singapore Town.

That the concert was not to be taken too seriously was also underlined by the works that ended each half. Jiang Ying's Hot Melody from Southeast Asia was an Asian pastiche of all those Leroy Anderson “jazz” pieces, while Zhao Ji Ping's Celebration Overture was a spin-off from Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture with Chinese tunes. If you can't beat them, join them.

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