Monday, 3 April 2017

CANTONESE CLASSICS / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Victoria Concert Hall
Friday (31 March 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 3 April 2017 with the title "Classics with Cantonese flavour".

The Singapore Chinese Orchestra has been systematically exploring the music of different regions and dialect groups of China. Much like Chinese cuisine, one of the more familiar varieties is that of the Cantonese. This concert conducted by Yeh Tsung centred on works composed and performed by musicians from Guangdong and Hong Kong.

Two very popular melodies featured in the concert's first part, Han Tian Lei (Thunderstorm And Drought) and Bu Bu Gao (Stepping Up). The former had a popular contemporary beat in Zhao Dong Sheng's orchestration, heavily utilising drum-set and electric guitar, with Han Lei's guanzi providing jazzy riffs. The latter was a quick-stepping march, so rousing that it had conductor Yeh gyrating to its beat.

Two soloists, both Cantonese by origin, featured in concertante works. Dizi exponent Ricky Yeung Wai Kit from Hong Kong gave the Singapore premiere of Zhang Wei Liang's Sea Of South China. Mastering its floridly ornamented part with gusto, his incisive and penetrating tone on the bangdi often rose above the orchestra's machinations. With the lower-pitched qudi, a lyrical and pastoral mien provided much contrast.

Gaohu specialist Yu Le Fu from Guangzhou, also known as a guitarist in the rock group Bubble Gum Pop, starred in his own concerto Clouds Over The Autumn Lake. A captivating opening solo saw the work unfurl like a virtuosic epic of intense emotions. Climaxing in a passionate cadenza accompanied by a single sustained pedal-point, there was no let-up to its spectacular close.

Unique to Cantonese music is a chamber ensemble of five players known as the wujiatou. Comprising bowed strings (two players), plucked strings, dizi and yangqin, it represented a more intimate form of musical expression. In Lu Wen Cheng's well-known Autumn Moon Over A Placid Lake (arranged by Yu), there were murmurs aplenty within the audience when its familiar melody emerged from the accompanying filigree.

The wujiatou then became a nucleus of soloists, partnered by more instruments in a series of works. Yu's Walking In The Rain With A Sunny Heart, originally a gaohu solo, benefited from this augmentation. Li Zhu Xin's Gong Che He Shi Shang, a set of variations, was lit up by significant guanzi and dizi contributions.

Impressive was Wang Dan Hong's Yue Dui Kou Lian Huai (Heart Raveling Orchestra), a modern work which played like an 18th century baroque concerto grosso. How the quintet of Yu (gaohu), Li Yu Long (yehu), Ma Huan (yangqin), Lo Chai Xia (qinqin) and Ricky Yeung (dizi) stood out in contrast was testimony to the effectiveness of its orchestration.

The final work, Fang Xiao Min's An Ode To Revolution, also had a Cantonese inspiration. That was the China Republic's founding father Sun Yat-Sen, and his part in overthrowing the Manchus. Martial and jingoistic to equal degree, it curiously quoted the patriotic song America (better known here as God Save The Queen), probably a representation of Sun's democratic ideal. That the work's main motif resembled Gershwin's I Got Rhythm was probably coincidental. Here it might well have been “I Got Freedom”.

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