Monday, 29 January 2018

RHAPSODIES OF SPRING 2018: HOME FOR THE NEW YEAR / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Singapore Conference Hall
Saturday (27 January 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 29 January 2017 with the title "Canine camp for the new year".

The first music to be heard at the newly renovated Singapore Conference Hall auditorium was Li Huan Zhi's Spring Festival Overture, providing a most rousing start to the Singapore Chinese Orchestra's annual Chinese New Year concert. Soon after conductor Yeh Tsung gave the down beat, one marvelled at the venue's new found acoustics. Once considered over-dry, under- reverberant and requiring audio enhancement, those criticisms will soon be things of the past.

There is now a naturalness to the symphonic sound, such that instrumental details are better defined, rather than being submerged beneath unnatural echoes and artificial augmentations. However hearing better sound does not necessarily translate into hearing better music, as this populist programme proved.

Chinese violinist Lu Siqing was guest soloist, opening with Eric Watson's idiomatic arrangement of Vivaldi's Spring from The Four Seasons. This was the same piece played by Joshua Bell in his famous SCO collaboration in 2016, and it sounded just as good this time, thanks to Lu's innate musicality, virtuosity and sympathetic orchestral accompaniment.

He was also soloist in two short concertante works carrying the imprimatur of Chen Gang, the better-known half in the composing duo of the Liang Zhu Concerto. Basking in his sumptuous sound and Phoon Yew Tien's lush orchestrations would be sufficent reward. But whoever dreamt of such titles like Golden Platform Of The Steel-Smelting Furnace or Taking The Tiger Mountain By Strategy? It seemed more like a marriage between Socialist Realism and the Butterfly Lovers.    

Suona principal Jin Shi Yi is the master
of the single long-held note.

The best music came from Kuan Nai Chung and Law Wai Lun. Kuan's Instrumental Guide To The Chinese Orchestra was the excellent Chinese solution to Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide To The Orchestra. Its main theme, Molihua, was subject to variations from all the traditional Chinese instruments and aided by a witty and often mischievous narration by local television personality and comedian Mark Lee.

Law's highly evocative score accompanied the short 2011 film The Reunion Dinner by award-winning director Anthony Chen of Ilo Ilo fame. Nostalgia reigned supreme in this piece which espoused filial piety, family values, and the good old days of not worrying about speaking in Hokkien.

As the Chinese zodiac counted down to the “Year of the Dog”, there had to be canine-related pieces. Eric Watson's medley of Gershwin's Promenade (also known as Walking The Dog) and the Patti Page classic How Much Is That Doggy In The Window? with winds simulating yelps from mutts was camp beyond words.

Increasingly resembling a television variety show, the concert came close to descending into farce with the Chinese New Year songs and vocal/rap numbers penned by the likes of Jack Neo, Kenn C and Mark Lee himself. Lee was at best a crooner while his otherwise able co-host Chen Biyu tended to scream out the high registers. The lyrics extolled wealth and prosperity, Sinophone audiences are parsimonious in sing-alongs, but do have a happy new year anyway.  

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