Monday, 13 February 2017

WUXIA / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Huayi Chinese Festival of Arts
Esplanade Concert Hall
Satuday (11 February 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 13 February 2017 with the title "A trip down memory lane for wuxia fans".

Film music was on the table for the Singapore Chinese Orchestra's contribution to this year's Huayi Chinese Festival of Arts organised by Esplanade. Conducted by Music Director Yeh Tsung, the orchestra delivered a huge dose of nostalgia to the mostly middle-aged audience that filled the hall to its rafters.

For many, the genre of Chinese period dramas with sword-fighting, kungfu postures and gravity-defying leaps came from the 1960s through early 80s, typically churned out in Hong Kong film studios. The celebration of this legacy began with Medley Of Television Dramas by the then-ubiquitous Joseph Koo, with the view of Victoria Harbour by night serving as a backdrop.

The familiar melodies rolled off easily, graced by short but pretty solos by Zhao Jian Hua (erhu) and Li Bao Shun (gaohu), but does the well-known Shanghai Beach from The Bund (one of Koo's most memorable themes) belong to this group?

More contemporary was the erhu concerto drawn from Tan Dun's Academy Award winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon score for the movie starring Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh. SCO member Tan Man Man was the elegant and sensitive soloist, but her reticence in exerting herself meant she was more often than not overwhelmed by the large looming orchestral forces.

Receiving a World Premiere was Hong Kong-based Lincoln Lo and former SCO Composer-in-Residence Law Wai Lun's score accompanying sword-fighting scenes from the 1967 classic wuxia movie One Armed Swordsman. The appearance of the iconic Shaw Brothers logo drew recognition and laughter from the audience, and the saga about chivalry, adversity, revenge and redemption got underway.

The music, with vigorous rhythms and lyricism backing sequences of action and romance, blended seamlessly with the happenings on screen, surprisingly violent (for the 1960s) for including severed arms and spilling of laughably fake blood. The audience was clearly enthused by their collective memories being jolted, and a final return of that Shaw Brothers icon.

Special guest of the evening was Hong Kong singer Johnny Yip, very popular in the 1970s, now in his seventies. He sang six songs including James Wong's Laughter From The Vast Sea, Michael Lai's Imperial Heroes and The Legendary Hero Fok, and three more by Joseph Koo. Clearly his amplified crooner's voice has seen better days, but his glittery silver-scaled and tinselled suits, and easy-going personality indicated he was still up for the job.

Besides singing in Cantonese, he also chatted effably in dialect with conductor Yeh and the audience, much to their approval. Proponents of the Speak Mandarin Campaign will voice their protest, but his authentic and sterling efforts were an exercise reclaiming a certain heritage, in turning back the clock and bringing back the old and beloved.   

As the audience clapped along to the encore, Yip singing Koo's Sweeping Through The Mountains And Rivers, there was a palpable feeling of belonging, and that all things were good again.

Photographs by Jack Yam, courtesy of Esplanade Theatres By The Bay.

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