Tuesday, 23 May 2017

DREAMS OF HOMELAND / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Victoria Concert Hall
Sunday (21 May 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 23 May 2017 with the title "Melodic dreams of home".

Many orchestral concerts are sold on the strength of guest soloists presented, but seldom has one concert been so dominated by a single figure such as this. Suzhou native Zhang Wei Liang, one of the world's great dizi masters, performed almost every minute of this two-hour long concert.

He was obviously taking a well-needed breather when the concert conducted by Yeh Tsung began with Zhao Ji Ping's Homeland Nostalgia, a movement from the orchestral suite Silk Road Melody. The impressionistic piece with Debussyan echoes dwelled on several Cantonese melodies before quietly alluding to the well-known tune Colourful Clouds Chasing The Moon

Then the marathon began, with Zhang performing his own Tears Of Flowers. Based on Suzhou pingtan, an intimate form of chamber music, Zhang crafted a deep and throaty timbre from the dadizi (a low-pitched flute), rich in vibrato and full of atmosphere. The rhapsodic work ambled from a slow and ruminative beginning before blazing to a spectacular fast close.

This form also dictated Zhou Song Ting and Cao Xing's The Spring Orchid, where Zhang's qudi held sway as a Kun Opera melody was subjected to phantasmagorical flight of fancy. While the instrument simulated nuances and inflexions of the human voice, it basked in an extended cadenza which was reminiscent of the dizzying flight of a humming bird. The technique of circular breathing ensured that streams of notes piled on in a relentless manner, and the audience could be excused for feeling breathless on his behalf.

The World Premiere of Cui Quan's Southern Wind was another excellent study in breath control, its indolent strains filled with trills and tremolos which Zhang handled with striking aplomb. This very pleasant work had a contemporary feel and is a welcome addition to the expanding dizi repertoire.

The most modern-sounding work was Chen Qigang's San Xiao (Three Laughs) which featured just four players: Zhang on shakuhachi and dizi, with Yu Jia (pipa), Xu Hui (guzheng) and Huang Gui Fang (sanxian). Each instrument had extremely difficult parts, their individual spiels being abstract rather than literal expressions on the subject on humour. The incessant pace abated with a folk-like dizi melody which had a serene and calming effect on the proceedings.

The evening's final work was Zhang's double dizi concerto entitled Dreams Of Homeland. Its four movements were a evocation of nostalgia, reflecting on childhood and youth in Jiangnan (the region south of the Yangtze). Zhang was partnered by his former student Zeng Zhi, now a SCO member, and the duo was nigh inseparable.

Interplay between both players was excellent, from the gentler and congenial opening movement, hurdling the obstacles of the rhythmic and scherzo-like Joy Of Homeland, right down to the vigourous dance of the quickfire finale Journey To Homeland. Very loud cheers yielded two encores: the lively Xiao Fang Liu (Little Cowboy) accompanied by orchestra, and the solo Liang Xiao (Beautiful Evening), which made for the perfect conclusion.  

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