Tuesday, 13 August 2019

MUSICAL FRONTIERS / Ding Yi Music Company and Suc Song Moi Bamboo Ensemble / Review

Ding Yi Music Company
with Suc Song Moi Bamboo Ensemble
Esplanade Recital Studio
Sunday (11 August 2019)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 13 August 2019 with the title "An enchanting kaleidoscope of traditional sounds".

Ding Yi Music Company seeks to widen its musical horizons and could not have had a better partnership in concert than Vietnam’s Suc Song Moi (New Vitality) Bamboo Ensemble. Based in Hanoi, the six-member group performs entirely on bamboo instruments. Its protagonists are five dan t’rungs, xylophones crafted from bamboo tubes of varying lengths and struck by mallets.

Their sound is gentle and mellow, with timbres similar to marimbas. These formed the accompaniment to solo instruments related to Chinese instruments but unique to Vietnamese music. Most of the music was arranged by Dong Quang Vinh, the band’s leader and multi-instrumentalist, also a conductor trained in the Western classical tradition. 

The 70-minute long concert opened with Cat Van and Bich Vuong’s Central Highlands Capriccio, a rhapsodic dance of the ethnic minorities showcasing the ensemble’s full capabilities. Harmonies were pleasing, and the rhythms invigorating. With their attention piqued, the audience was further treated to displays of individual virtuosity on solo instruments.

Dong’s brother Minh Anh performed on a dan bau or monochord, its single string controlled by varying tension on a flexible metal rod. Its high-pitched amplified sound (through a loud-hailer) had a quivering otherworldly quality, not dissimilar to electric guitar, theremin or Ondes Martenot. It made Nguyen Van Ty’s Mother’s Love, a cradle-song, sound all the more ethereal.

Equally curious was the k’ni, performed by Ta Xuan Quynh, a bowed instrument with its single string controlled by the mouth. The leaves sprouting from both ends of its bamboo body were purely ornamental, but its erhu-like lament in You My Deep Sorrow by Trinh Cong Son (hailed as Vietnam’s Schubert) left a deep impression.

Leader Dong himself gave a masterclass on the humble bamboo piccolo in Nhat Lai’s Pongk’le Birds, which was performed in a variety of ways. Alternating techniques used for dizi, recorder, panpipes and whistle, he simulated a veritable forest of birdsong, before closing with an incredulously long-held note.

Cellist Chee Jun Sian and two percussionists from Ding Yi joined the Viets in the Mongolian folksong Swan Geese, and the full complement of instrumentalists emerged for Phan Huynh Dieu’s The Shadow Of Ko Nia Tree, conducted by Quek Ling Kiong.

This patriotic Vietnam war song and Northern Vietnamese folksong Missing You utilised scales similar to those found in Indonesian music, suggesting familial relationships and influences in supposedly disparate musical cultures. One supposes these belong to an all-inclusive umbrella-like entity which we know as Nanyang music, a subject that bears further ethnomusicological study.

To close, the Vietnamese instruments were embedded within the larger ensemble for the well-known Yunnan melody Xiao He Tang Shui (The Running Stream) and the world premiere of young Singaporean composer Alicia de Silva’s Among Black Bamboos, the concert’s most modern piece.  This itself was transcribed from an earlier work for angklungs and kulintangs. Two words to describe this unusual concert: simply enchanting. 

Post concert, leader Dong Quang Vinh
demonstrates to Culture Minister Grace Fu
how the dan bau is played.
Ta Xuan Quynh shows how a k'ni
is played, mouthpiece, leaves and all.
Dong Minh Ahn plays on a dan bau,
amplified by a megaphone.
Truong Thu Huong plays the Vietnamese zither.
A masterclass on the bamboo piccolo,
as composer Alicia de Silva looks on.
A family of dan t'rungs.

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