Monday 30 January 2023

AN EVENING WITH HONG KONG CHINESE ORCHESTRA / Huayi Chinese Festival of Arts / Review



Huayi Chinese Festival of Arts

Esplanade Concert Hall

Saturday (28 January 2023)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 30 January 2023 with the title "Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra draws standing ovation."


It has been over four years since the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra last performed in Singapore. Led by Cultural Medallion recipient Yan Huichang, its Artistic Director since 1997 and Principal Conductor for Life, the orchestra’s return was close to a sellout house in this year Esplanade’s Huayi Chinese Festival of Arts. Its two-hour long concert revealed a versatility and virtuosity that has become synonymous with this ensemble.   


The sound of percussion opened Ng King-Pan’s The Chorale Of Spring, more a celebratory rather than ceremonial showpiece, which shared the rhythmic vitality and bounding energy as Stravinsky’s iconic ballet The Rite Of Spring. When the dagu, the most mammoth of all drums, is involved, something truly big is going down. This was followed by two movements from Peng Xiuwen’s Twelve Months Suite, contrasting a chamber-like intimacy and sentimentality with the exuberance of lively festivities.

Photo: Jack Yam / Esplanade
Photo: Jack Yam / Esplanade

Especially impressive was the inclusion of two vastly different concertante works. Well-known composer Zhao Jiping’s Pipa Concerto No.2 saw the orchestra’s pipa principal Zhang Ying as spectacular soloist. The single movement work in multiple linked parts opened with lushness and poetic beauty as the solo instrument found its way from lyricism to playfulness, and then prestidigitation associated with crisis and turmoil. There was a big tune at its climax with the orchestra’s famed ecologically-friendly gehus leading the way before receding to calm and quietude.  


Taiwanese composer Wang I-Yu’s Reeds had the orchestra’s soprano sheng player Chen Yi-Wei pitted against British organist Jonathan Scott on Esplanade’s Klais organ, an innovative work that sought a commonality between the millennia-old Chinese instrument with a modern Western electronic one.


It was not a mismatch given the astute scoring in the concert’s most modern sounding work. Beside the sheng's plangent oration and the organ's toccata-like maneuvers, there was a curious interlude which involved the drones and plucked twangs from Jew's harps scattered among the players. The work closed with all orchestral reeds joining in for one raucous high. 


Oscar-winning composer Tan Dun is a master of orchestral colour and sound effects as evident in the four movements of his Northwest Suite No.1. The rasping of cymbals rubbed against one another and the possibilities of the human voice opened this atmospheric work that celebrated the “yellow earth” landscape and peoples from Shaanxi, also conductor Yan’s home province.


Stark contrasts coloured the score, from breathtaking fanfares of a suona chorus, hyperactive percussion, a nocturne-like slow movement filled with underlying tension, to the constant perpetual motion of its fraught finale. With this, the orchestra trenchantly portrayed the toils and triumphs of human endeavour in a harsh environment.   


Several encores, including a medley of Chinese New Year favourites – with the god of fortune making a grand entrance - and one incorporating the popular Happy Birthday, had the audience, clapping, singing and finally rising to its feet. An evening with Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra was indeed an evening well spent. 

Photo: Jack Yam / Esplanade

Photo: Jack Yam / Esplanade

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