Tuesday 11 July 2017

PREMIERE / Asian Cultural Symphony Orchestra / Review

Asian Cultural Symphony Orchestra
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
Saturday (8 July 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 10 July 2017 with the title "Rousing blend of music".

The Asian Cultural Symphony Orchestra was inaugurated in 2016 to perform Asian symphonic works, with the mission of “celebrating them with equal regard as their Western counterparts”. Its third concert got off to an excellent start with young Singaporean composer Wang Chenwei's Confluence.

Implied in its title, the work cleverly fused themes based on Indian and Indonesian scales with Western compositional techniques. The flavour was unmistakeable Asian, down to raucous rhythms and slurring of melodies, before thematic material developed into a Bachian fugue. Originally composed for Chinese instruments, the World Premiere of its Western orchestration made for a rousing opener. 

Another World Premiere was Taiwanese composer Wang Yi-Lu's The Blue Planet: Earth, an erhu concerto featuring soloist Wong Qin Kai. Alternating between violence and serenity, the work pondered about the planet's origins and future, with the virtuosic erhu being its muse. Melodic interest included a theme reminiscent of Edelweiss (The Sound Of Music) while the often lively orchestral parts reminded this listener of works by Revueltas and Bernstein.

Xin Huguang's Gada Meiren (Ga Da Mei Lin) of 1956 is an established Chinese repertoire classic. The symphonic poem used a well-known Mongolian melody inspired by the eponymous warrior and national hero, first heard on solo oboe and developed into a full-blown rhapsody. Conducted by Dedric Wong, the music ambled from a pastoral opening into battle mode, the sort now often regarded as epic film music, before settling to an elegiac denouement. 

The young orchestra members coped well in the two-hour long concert, playing with much effervescent energy and in many occasions, no little refinement. Their Asian adventure continued with late Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar's 40-minute-long Symphony (realised by David Murphy), conducted by Adrian Chiang.

Composed in 2010 while in his nineties, the work was closer in spirit to the 1960-70s when he found worldwide fame in his association with the Beatles and Yehudi Menuhin. Each of its four movements is based on a raga, with the orchestra introducing the themes before brothers Krsna Tan (sitar) and Govin Tan (tabla) entering the fray.

Actual raga performances can last the best part of a morning or evening, but confined by the symphonic form, their scope for improvisation was limited to the score's dictates. Such is the “conflict” between Asian music and Western concert genres, stereotypes we often label as symphonies, concertos, suites and the like.

Nonetheless, this did little to curb the enjoyment of both soloists, with the finale (Banjara) culminating in Govin's extended tabla improvisation, Krsna's sitar spiel, an apparent duel and with the orchestra, an ecstatic romp to the finish.

Jeffrey Tan's exuberant Train To Euston, featuring the 6-man fusion band Flame Of The Forest (violin, sitar, tabla, percussion, keyboard, electric guitar and electric bass) served as an enjoyable encore. With cheers aplenty, the evening which started like a serious gig closed like a rock concert.    

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