Monday, 9 April 2018

SHAO EN & SCO / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Singapore Conference Hall
Saturday (7 April 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 9 April 2018 with the title "Chinese orchestra at its best".

In a concert totally free of kitsch, the veteran Chinese conductor Shao En demonstrated the length and breadth of the capabilities a large ensemble of traditional Chinese instruments can truly achieved. The Chinese orchestral repertoire has yet to throw up equivalents of a Beethoven or Mahler symphony, but in the area of symphonic poems and concertante works, there are some darned good pieces.

Zhu Lin's erhu solo.
Shao's own Xiao Bai Cai Capriccioso, a movement from a larger work, was a case in point. Its sheer mastery of orchestral colour, in both solo playing and ensemble work, was staggering. The popular song of an orphaned girl was hinted at by Tan Chye Tiong on xun (ocarina), before being fleshed out on Zhu Lin's erhu. A succession of instruments then took their turn. Yu Jia's pipa, Li Yu Long's banhu, Han Lei's guanzi and Jin Shi Yi's suona were all involved, taking the music through a rhapsodic adventure before concluding on a contemplative note.

The concertante works were no less impressive. Erhu principal Zhao Jian Hua showed the expressive qualities of his instrument in two pieces. Yang Liqing's Song Of Sadness opened with a Bartokian sobriety, and if an instrument could be a personification of flowing tears, this was it.  His opening solo portended tragedy on a personal but epic scale, its poignancy multiplied when heard alongside Xu Zhong's cello. 

In Zhao Jiping's Love from Qiao's Grand Courtyard, melancholy oozed from Zhao's erhu, gently accompanied by Katryna Tan's harp. The tempo was upped into perpetual motion in a fast middle section - a jolly fiddle dance - but there was little doubt which emotion was to dominate in the end.

The evening's tour de force of solo playing was provided by the young suona exponent Chang Le who used three instruments in Qin Wenchen's concerto The Summon Of Phoenix. This is a contemporary work in every sense, atonal in parts but totally engaging in its roller-coaster ride of sound effects and wind technique.

Chang's range was enormous, from low-pitched gutteral growls to wailing in the stratospheric registers. Consummate virtuosity was a given, and his derring-do and reserves to see though the punishing solo part seemed almost boundless. This might very well be the most impressive concerto performance of the concert year.

The final work was Guan Xia's modern treatment of the Beijing opera classic Farewell, My Concubine with words sung by soprano Cui Rui. Her part was a short but crucial one, emoting longing and loss in portraying the moment of “Gazing At The Emperor Asleep In His Tent”. The music was dramatic and heartrending, no doubt with grand gestures befitting the subject at hand.

Her return with a reprise of the vital words, now accompanied by Li Baoshun's gaohu marked a moving close to the concert. The cause of Chinese symphonic music has rarely been this well served.    


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