Monday, 6 November 2017

ERIC WATSON'S WORLD OF CHINESE MUSIC / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre Auditorium
Friday (3 November 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 6 November 2017 with the title "Enjoyable blend of East meets West".

The irony in the concert's title was deliberate. After all, what does a British composer have to do with Chinese music? In the case of Eric Watson, plenty. Singapore Chinese Orchestra's present Composer-in-Residence has lived in Singapore since 1991, and had been interested in Asian music and culture long before that. In 2006, he was awarded First Prize in the First Singapore International Competition for Chinese Orchestral Composition, and his works and arrangements have since featured regularly in SCO concerts here and overseas.

This enjoyable 2-hour concert conducted by SCO Music Director Yeh Tsung showcased seven works of Watson's, including the world premiere of The Nanyang Gate, a concerto for sanxian inspired by nanyin music and a trip to Xiamen. The Fujian port city had historically been China's portal to Nanyang, where the Chinese diaspora to the Southeast Asia began. The music opened calmly, gradually building to a heightened sense of anticipation and exhilaration in Huang Gui Fang's virtuosic display on the 3-stringed plucked instrument.

Transitions between quiet meditation and purple passion were interesting, culminating in an unaccompanied showy and coruscating cadenza. The other concertante work was Dialogue (2007) for tabla and orchestra. Jatinder Singh Bedi provided an incessant conversation, much that was improvised, with the ensemble that was gripping for its entire duration. In both works, Watson did not slavishly imitate Chinese or Indian music, but assimilated elements of their styles in an original way.

Watson's experience in musical theatre and popular music accounted for Sea – Source Of Life, which opened the concert. Written for the 2007 National Day Parade, its easy and feel-good demeanour found a mirror in Mahjong Kakis (also 2007), which employed jazzy and blues idioms to playful effect. The latter has become one of his most exportable works.

On a more serious note, his Tapestry – Time Dances, which won his 2006 grand prix, played on the age-old form of variations, with a simple “ticking” theme subjected through myriad transformations. The prerequisite of Nanyang inspiration for its composition was cleverly handled, especially in sinuous passages for dizis and some rhythmic drumming. Throw in a slow section recalling the pastoral string strains of his compatriot Vaughan Williams, its appeal may be seen as universal.

From a similar fabric was An Independent Note (2015) conceived, a musical portrait of Singapore founding father Lee Kuan Yew using a selection of his quotes. Lee’s stentorian voice came alive via veteran thespian Lim Kay Tong, who projected a resolute and defiant spirit rather than providing mere vocal mimicry.

Arguably Watson's most popular work is The Ceilidh, taken from a Gaelic word meaning concert or gathering. Using highland melodies which are largely pentatonic, the line between Chinese music and that of the British Isles became blurred. That was until the glorious emergence of O Waly Waly (The River Is Wide), the big tune which swept all and sundry to a raucous and joyous end.   

Photographs by the kind courtesy of
Singapore Chinese Orchestra.

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