Monday, 16 July 2018

DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER & RED CLIFF / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Singapore Conference Hall
Friday (13 July 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 16 July 2018 with the title "Chinese works on local terms".

The Singapore Chinese Orchestra's opening concert of the 2018-19 season began with the national anthem Majulah Singapura, led by music director Yeh Tsung. That patriotic gesture indicated although the works performed were based on Chinese literature classics, the production was to be on Singaporean terms.

That this orchestra is able to hold its own, especially when performing concerts in mainland China, is beyond doubt. This was evident in Wang Li Ping's Dream Of The Red Chamber Suite, based on his music written for the iconic 1987 television serial Hong Lou Meng. That in turn was adapted from the 18th century epic in 120 chapters by Cao Xueqin about the trials, tribulations and decline of four families in feudal China.

Twelve of fifteen movements in Wang's suite were performed. The pathos of impending tragedy was captured in the Overture, with the offstage voice of Chinese soprano Wu Bixia wafting in mysteriously. Although diminutive in physical stature, she would make her outsized vocal presence felt in seven movements, portraying the long-suffering women characters of the saga.

Poem Of the Red Bean, Handkerchief Melody, Longing In Vain, Tragic Story Of Xiang Ling and Elegy On Flowers were among these beautiful but mostly tragic plaints. About eternal longing and yearning, there was a certain degree of sameness, padding up the suite to nearly an hour.

For variety, there were spirited contributions from the 40-strong Vocal Associates Festival Choruses (Khor Ai Ming, Chorus Mistress), very fine string playing from the huqins in Love Between Baoyu And Daiyu, and raucous percussion in Lantern Festival.

More compact was Chen Ning-Chi's 2003 symphonic poem Chibi (The Battle Of Red Cliff), based on a tumultuous episode from The Romance Of Three Kingdoms. Channel Eight host Jeffrey Low was a stirring narrator and vocal heroics came from Singaporean tenor Jonathan Charles Tay. The musical idiom was decidedly more modern, and the vivid orchestration flowed inexorably through four linked movements.

The famous quote Ren Sheng Ru Meng (Life Is But A Dream) opened and closed this quintessential battle piece, emphasising the impermanence of being, even if it involved Chinese legends like Cao Cao, Zhu Geliang and Zhou Yu. Their interconnected lives were shelled out in the 2nd movement Masks, where a delicate gaohu duet by Li Bao Shun and Zhou Ruo Yu stood out among the bluster.

Further solos by Han Lei's guanzi and Jin Shi Yi's suona mouthpiece set the stage for the furious final battle, with the decibel quotient raised by percussion, suona chorus, cannon shots, offstage horns and red smoke. A sensurround effect was clearly felt from the seats, a just Chinese riposte to Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, Beethoven's Wellington's Victory and Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky, just to name a few battle potboilers.

SCO's chorus of suonas
always create a sonorous impression.

Closing quietly with a reprise of Tay's lament about life, poignantly accompanied by Xu Zhong's cello, the subtle and sober end made the work all the more memorable.

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