Monday, 6 March 2017

FLAVOURS OF CHINESE MUSIC / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Victoria Concert Hall
Saturday (4 March 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 6 March 2017 with the title "First-grade melodies from a first-grade composer".

Victoria Concert Hall was packed to brimming at this concert by the Singapore Chinese Orchestra performing the music of Liu Xiu Jin. Liu has been ranked by the People's Republic of China as a “first grade composer”, a reputation well-deserved on the evidence of this single-composer  showcase jointly conducted by his wife Hong Xia and SCO Music Director Yeh Tsung.

The first work, Continuous Prosperity, was a microcosm of the two-and-a-half-hour long concert. The Vocal Associates Festival Chorus (trained by Khor Ai Ming) opened quietly over a low buzz from the strings, but soon the orchestra broke out into celebratory mode evoking Chinese New Year in the ancient city of Tianjin. Solos from suona, cello and ruan all registered their pleasure in a rousing work where lyricism was never short in supply.

Then came four concertante works, beginning with two movements from The Seven Great Elements of Buddhism (Tathagatagarbha) for konghou, an antique harp-like instrument performed with assured aplomb by the statuesque Wu Lin. Both The Earth and The Fire were slow movements filled with serenity and calm. Simultaneously plucked and strummed, the konghou brought out deep and mellow sonorities in lower registers, and had a brilliant edge at the opposite end.

Familiar to SCO followers will be Liu's Legend of the Merlion, a 3-movement gaohu concerto with concertmaster Li Bao Shun as soloist, which has been recorded on CD by the orchestra. The slow-fast-slow form again highlighted a penchant for melody in the outer movements, framing a stormy centre entitled Raging Sea. Despite its title, there were no Nanyang influences in this music which found Li at his virtuosic and eloquent best.

By now, the listener would have discerned that mellifluous melodies were Liu's best suit. This was most apparent in Lingering Snow on the Broken Bridge with dizi principal Yin Zhi Yang as impressive soloist. This single-movement concerto was a Romantic wallow, its picturesque subject centred on Hangzhou's West Lake, scene of innumerable romances. The pitter-patter of falling snow was prelude to music of unrelieved bliss.

Its diametric opposite was the 2-movement erhu concerto Poetry of the National Spirit, receiving its World Premiere. This was a unabashed peaen to Chinese resilience as well as virtuoso showpiece. Soloist Yu Hong Mei strove mostly for the latter, aided by dramatic gestures of musical violence and patriotism from the orchestra. This was the least melodically-inspired and arguably least memorable of the four concertos.

The grand finale saw a return of the choir for Hero Of The Mountain, 4th movement from Poetry of the Zhuang People. Percussion heralded its opening which led into a joyous dance-song from the choir, before another sumptuous melody dominated the proceedings. The encore was a sing-along with one of Liu's most famous songs Wo Ai Ni, Sai Bei De Xue (I Love You, Northern Snow), certainly a first grade melody, which was most warmly received.

Photographs by courtesy of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra.

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