Monday, 6 June 2016

HOMECOMING II / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (4 June 2016)

An edited version of this review was published in The Straits Times on 6 June 2016 with the title "Happy stirring of East and West".

There were four World Premieres at this concert that also featured the debuts of T'ang Quartet and pianist Melvyn Tan with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra. Conducted by Music Director Yeh Tsung, there was a theme of nature and musical impressionism running through its programme.

The concert began with Phang Kok Jun's arrangement of Ho Chee Kong's Garden Veils, a serene evocation of Singapore's self-professed reputation as the “Garden City”. The mellow song of cellos opened, soon replaced by erhus accompanied by the gentlest of pizzicatos. The voice of nature soon bloomed, showing that Chinese huqins and Western strings could happily co-exist in a musical ecosphere. A short and retiring guanzi solo at its close was also a nice atmospheric touch.

The T'ang Quartet, comprising violinists Ng Yu Ying and Ang Chek Meng, violist Lionel Tan and cellist Leslie Tan, performed in two concertante works. Zhu Lin's Pastorale in Five Episodes scored for string quartet, winds and percussion was a fantasy built upon Jimbo's Lullaby from Debussy's Children's Corner Suite. Why not, since that pentatonic melody was laden with myriad possibilities.

The quartet presented the theme and its fragments, colourfully traversing a farmyard scene, festive dance and funeral procession before closing quietly with dizi and marimba in support. Here was a toy elephant's cradle song transformed into a gentle reverie for suckling piglets.

Totally contrasting in timbral sonorities was Gao Wei Jie's Fantastic Landscape of Rainforest for string quartet, plucked strings and percussion. More austere and dissonant, the idiom was pointillist and modernistic, with Bartokian ostinatos providing the driving impetus. There were moments for repose when Leslie Tan's cello sang unabated, before an abrupt and animated end.  

Also heard for the first time was John Sharpley's Stirrings: Scenes from a Rainforest, a suite of six short and varied movements. His exploitation of tonal colour was a treat, whether the subject was a tropical squall, the awakening of dawn or raging fire. In Song of the Rainforest, Li Baoshun's gaohu was the soulful protagonist while Huang Gui Fang's sanxian delightfully lit up the somewhat tipsy Dance of Oneness including Some Rice Wine. In the final Canopy Dreams, birdsong from winds and percussion provided a mysterious close that recalled Messiaen's spirituality.

Melvyn Tan rounded up the concert as soloist in Maurice Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major. His nimble fingers served the trickily syncopated piano part well, fluid and limpid in turn, and crisp and percussive when needed. This version with Chinese instruments however proved problematic as the very specific sound which the Frenchman had sought was subverted at every turn. And it did not help when the opening crack of the whip (by snapping two pieces of wood together) arrived fractionally late.

Rubato was served up in spades for the Mozartian slow movement, a liberty which could pass in a live concert, but the sheng as surrogate for cor anglais was straining credibility a little too far. The Presto finale proved a mess for a number of solo winds who found hard to keep up, an uncharacteristic blip in an otherwise technically impressive concert. Tan performed two solo encores, Chopin's Fantasie-Impromptu and Liszt's Un Sospiro, which garnered the most enthusiastic applause.  

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