Friday, 15 November 2013

CONTEMPLATIO / Yong Siew Toh Conservatory New Music Ensemble / Review

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory 
New Music Ensemble
Esplanade Recital Studio
Wednesday (13 November 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 14 November 2013 with the titles "Palette of riotous sounds".

The scope of modern music offers contemporary composers the widest possible range of musical expressions and resources available for creating new works. It is this sheer variety and endless possibilities that make new music invigourating, and nothing has to sound the same or tuneless, just to name common accusations levelled at this genre.

The Conservatory’s New Music Ensemble conducted by Chan Tze Law skilfully and persuasively demonstrated this diversity in four very different works. The chamber version of Singaporean Kelly Tang’s Radiance (2012), commissioned for the Esplanade’s 10th Anniversary, opened the concert.

It displayed a panoply of shifting moods; intimacy from the strings contrasted with outward extroversion in the brass, well complemented by thoughtful woodwinds. The almost impressionist haze gave way to a series of chorales, which resembled stretches of film music before ending in an abrupt upshot, described by the composer as a sardonic smirk.

Twilight Colours (2007) by the first important Chinese-American composer Chou Wen-Chung was more extended, but limited to just three strings and three woodwinds. Solos were heard separately and other voices later joined with varying timbres in this desolate and contemplative piece. Little resembled Chinese music and somewhere, the tonal spectre of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde hovered, straining to break free before its loud chordal ending.

A wider palette of colours was the exploited by Filipino student composer Joshua Pangilinan in When You Contemplate The Waters (2013). Piano, marimba and more brass joined the ensemble in the metamorphosis of a rising three note motif, evoking a lotus blooming. Stillness with Rit Xu’s alto flute accompanied by Chen Yang’s marimba, and the climactic orchestral roar near the end were some memorable moments. Pagilinan dedicated this World Premiere to the people of the Philippines, rebuilding lives in the wake of the typhoon tragedy. 

The longest work, and the most entertaining, was John Adam’s Gnarly Buttons (1996), a virtuoso clarinet concerto showcasing the impressive prowess of conservatory alumnus Li Xin. Taking a byway derived from minimalism, the three intricately rhythmic movements played on popular musical idioms including jazz, country and western, and the sentimental ballad.  

Li’s free-wheeling manner in the frenetic and acrobatic score resembled improvisation, leaping through thickets of instrumental interjections as electric guitar, banjo, mandolin and two synthesizer keyboards were thrown into the fray. The madcap antics including a bovine moo in the central hoedown, aptly subtitled Mad Cow, lent an air of demented anarchy to the proceedings, and the finale was a soppy song turned agitated. It made for a riotous end indeed.  

This concert was presented as part of the Esplanade's Spectrum Series.

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