Monday 27 May 2024



Teng Ensemble 
Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre 
Friday (24 May 2024) 

This review was published in The Straits Times on 27 May 2024 with the title "Audio-visual spectacle for Teng Ensemble's 20th anniversary".

For its 20th anniversary celebrations, the Teng Ensemble – renowned for its slick and funky pop concerts performed on Chinese instruments – devoted an entire concert of works by Singaporean composers. There were altogether ten pieces, each backed by the sophisticated use of audio electronics and projected moving images. All this made for an exuberant aural and visual spectacle. 

Teng Ensemble is a no-limits generator of ideas, always pushing the envelope and breaching boundaries. Whoever thought serious composers could countenance writing popular music? Or that jazz, pop and music production people would venture confidently into the classical realm? Teng Ensemble did and the results defied all expectations. 

The concert opened with Kelly Tang’s Kallang Uproar, composed for the 2010 Youth Olympics. One will not find a more upbeat work, channeling Brazilian samba and reliving Singapore’s long-gone glory days of soccer. Just five players, on pipa, sheng, cello, electric guitar and cajon (percussion), was all that was needed for just a bit of nostalgia. 

Erhu and guzheng joined in for 14-year-old composing prodigy Nathanael Koh’s Soaring, imagining an eagle’s celestial flight with the traditional sonata form coloured by a Malay kompang’s incessant beat. Just intoxicating. 

Soul Dot SG is a music production collective of three artists, whose Empowered was supposedly infused with K-pop, but sounded far more than that. Was this a fusion with Middle Eastern and Indo-Malay influences as well? 

Erhu and cello dominated the melodic lines in George Leong’s entertaining Oriental Psyche, with hip hop rhythms that radiated inner city vibes. Evan Low’s Concrete Jungle was a local variation of the traditional railway genre piece, with the rolling rhythm of MRT trains accompanied by stunning time-lapse photography. 

The concert’s third chapter entered terra incognita with the evening’s most modern sounding music. Phoon Yu’s A Transi For The Common Man opened with solo pipa, then erupting into fugue-like counterpoint (with more in common with Aaron Copland than J.S.Bach) before closing with the pipa’s return. 

Koh Cheng Jin’s A.I.Funk went even further by being an atonal passacaglia. With quasi-improvisational flourishes built on a rhythmic ground bass, it sounded surprisingly approachable. With borders between old and new, East and West, classical and pop, being irreversibly blurred, Chok Kerong’s breezy musical odyssey titled Seafarer, sandwiched between Phoon and Koh, claimed a happy middle ground. 

The final group of pieces employed the largest number of players, twelve in the case of Bang Wenfu’s The Nine Suns, a cinematic score inspired by Louis Cha’s wuxia (martial arts) novels. Heroic and pugilistic in most part, this is music of flexed muscles and stretched sinews. 

Teng’s co-founders Samuel Wong (pipa) and Yang Ji Wei (sheng) made the ensemble 14-strong, uniting three generations of musicians in Chow Junyi, Joel Nah and Wong’s Harmony. This final work shoe-horned old local and classic tunes like Jinkli Nona, Suriram, Xiao Bai Chuan (Little White Boat) and Han Tian Lei (Thunder In Drought) into a glorious symphonic summation.

For the record, the Teng Ensemble raised over 640 thousand dollars on the first evening of fund-raising. Bravissimo, and may you continue to create more Music For Good!

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