Monday, 5 August 2019

THE FENG YA SONG SYMPHONY / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Singapore Conference Hall
Saturday (3 August 2019)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 5 August 2019 with the title "Stirring earthly and patriotic passion".

Man and his relationship with Earth was the theme of this Singapore Chinese Orchestra concert conducted by Yeh Tsung. Three major works were performed, beginning with Tang Jianping’s Hou Tu (Empress Earth). In four connected movements, the 1997 work cannily employed pre-recorded songs from ethnic minority hill tribes of China, over which orchestral textures were thickly layered.

High flutes and percussion opened the work before the entrance of children’s voices. In the call and response form of aboriginal chants, with men’s and women’s voices later introduced, a vigorous and raucous dance ensued. Mostly propulsive and sometimes bordering on violence, this was a Chinese “song of the earth”, but one which bore down to a quiet trance-like close.

German composer Enjott Schneider’s Earth and Fire (2009) was a concerto for sheng in two movements, based on two of the Five Elements that defined nature. Stretching the virtuosity of sheng exponent Wu Wei to the max, his mouth organ’s piquant timbre pierced through the massed instrumental morass with a laser-like clarity.

Rhythmic and energetic, Wu’s ponytail flapped in the air for the Earth movement. The ante was  upped in Fire, where lapping tongues of orchestral sound rose like some all-consuming force. This was a dance culminating in a fearsome solo cadenza for sheng, gloriously polyphonic and imbued with jazzy vibes. Here was a tour de force of solo playing.

Composer Zhao Jiping offers an
autograph for veteran concert-goer Mr Chua.

After the interval, Zhao Jiping’s Feng Ya Song Symphony (2019), in five linked movements,  received its Singapore premiere. Veteran composer Zhao is China’s answer to John Williams, having written scores for epic films like Farewell, My Concubine, Red Sorghum and Raise The Red Lantern. However in this symphony, he was more Mahlerian in ambition, hoping to encompass everything within its 40-minute long span.

The subject had to do with the Chinese worldview as seen through Tang dynasty poetry and literature arts. A wordless choir provided by the Vocal Associates Festival Choruses (Khor Ai Ming, Artistic Director) set the atmospheric mood for an idiom that resembled the music from those biblical films of old.

Like Mahler’s symphony Song Of The Earth, there was also two solo vocalists. Tenor Kee Loi Seng’s stentorian voice resounded strongly in Guan Ju (Crying Ospreys), a scholar’s lament about forlorn love for a virtuous maiden. Soprano Zhang Ningjia, wife of composer Zhao, was the star in Melody of the Secluded Orchid, which slowly and gently built up to a stirring climax. Her heartfelt ode was in praise of a humble flower that withstands all trials and thrives.

In the purely orchestral scherzo-like 3rd movement, The Mythical Bird, the orchestra spun a tarantella-like perpetual motion through the course of its wild ride. A nationalistic air occupied the finale Guo Feng, with a grand apotheosis espousing patriotism to the land of one’s being. Just the perfect start to the week leading to National Day. 

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