Friday, 13 April 2018


Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre Auditorium
Thursday (12 April 2018)

The Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts is the premier Singaporean tertiary institution for the study of traditional Chinese instruments. Its Chinese orchestra, rightfully, is also the finest of its kind among the local educational institutions. In a concert celebrating the institution’s 80th anniversary helmed by veteran Chinese conductor Wang Yongji, the NAFA Orchestra, with its student body augmented by alumni and Singapore Chinese Orchestra members, rose to a rarefied standard of playing that lovers of Chinese music will all be proud of.

Like the Singapore Chinese Orchestra's concert the week before, this was a programme of excellent showpieces – with no kitsch – that displayed the best of the orchestra's abilities besides highlighting solo prowess. Lady composer Wang Dan Hong's works are a case in point. Opening the concert was her Ode To The Sun, which worked from a slow opening to a rousing allegro. A winsome dizi melody accompanied by plucked strings (pipas and ruans) later soaring to a high with raucous drumming, were highlights in this music which resembled that of an epic film.

Similarly emotive was an abridged version of Wang's Ru Shi, a concerto for guzheng which featured as soloist one of NAFA's most brilliant alumni Yvonne Tay, now a principal member of Ding Yi Music Company. This concerto was derived from music from Wang's score for the film of the same title, about the legendary courtesan, her trials and tribulations. The slow to fast form was again employed, culminating in a show of digital virtuosity, one which also employed modern technical devices. There was a faux ending, which induced some premature applause, a ruse to further its narrative to a definitive but emphatic close.

Qiao Haibo, Principal dizi in the Shanghai Chinese Orchestra, played on no less than four instruments in Qu Xiaosong's Divine Melody. These included the dizi, xun (ocarina), xiao and shakuhachi, each producing a distinctively different timbre. Based on the poems of Qu Yuan, the music was atmospheric and lyrical, before following an increasingly furious martial beat to a rousing and heroic end.

In the second half, Zhou Chenglong's Nao Hua Deng (Playing Flower Lanterns) provided an imperious show for the orchestra's very impressive suona section. Theirs is a highly plangent sonority, ceremonial in intention and ritualistic in intensity. Subtler harmonies were also highlighted in the playing, that was later accompanied by an 8-member battery of percussion. It was revealed after the work that no less than four of its members were actually guzheng players standing in! Much detail of the music came through amid this racket, confirming the orchestra's mastery of this most piquant piece. 

NAFA's Head of Chinese instrumental studies, erhu player Sunny Wong Sun Tat, was the soloist in Jin Fuzai's concertante work When The Rivers Thaw In Spring. Arguably the best work of the concert, it was a rhapsodic wallow through the string instrument's extremes of registers. 

Inspired by Su Shi's poetry, it began lyrically and plotted its congenial course before arriving at an impressive cadenza. Disaster struck midway through the concerto when a string snapped. Wong coolly swapped an erhu with a front-desk member before excusing himself for two agonising minutes. Returning with an intact instrument, he blazed a path through this beautiful music to a splendidly animated close. If anything, the rupture galvanised all the players into an altogether excitable finish.

The final work was Peng Xiu Wen's arrangement of a Beijing opera favourite The Surging Of Turbulent Clouds. Highlighted in this more traditional number was solos from the sheng, suona and a centrally-placed jinghu, highest pitched member of the huqin string family. The rhythmic dance, aided by the incessant beat of a temple block made for a showy and grand close to the concert. There was also time for an encore, which was a medley which including amongst other tunes Di Tanjung Katong.

A very eventful and enjoyful concert, and one that foresees a very bright future for all these talented young musicians, and the strong case for the pursuit of great Chinese orchestral music.      

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