Conservatory New Music Ensemble: Exile and creativity

There was a hidden message in all of this. The audience was told the four works performed were connected by the concept of changing perceptions, but they were not told that all four composers had established their true musical styles and achieved international recognition only after they had left their countries of birth and gone into self-imposed exile. What message does that send to aspiring Singapore composers?

Arvo Part left his native Estonia in 1980, settled in Vienna and evolved a musical style which attracted an almost cult following. The Conservatory New Music Ensemble performed his take on Psalm 137, By The Waters Of Babylon, not in its familiar version for organ and singers, but in one for nine instrumentalists.

The trombone (eloquently played by Pradch Limvorant) evoked a priest intoning the psalm while the other players, dotted around the room, acted as the voices of supplicants. Part's tendency to ponder long and lovingly over one note before moving on to the next did not always find sympathy with these performers, who generally seemed more concerned with counting the beats than savouring the notes.

Chen Yi and Bright Sheng are among a group of composers who, unsettled by the Cultural Revolution, took the first opportunity to leave China and settle in the United States, where they celebrate their Chinese musical heritage in styles infused with the idioms of the West.

  • REVIEW / CONCERT

  • SPECTRUM - LANDSCAPES

    Conservatory New Music Ensemble

    Esplanade Recital Studio/Sunday

Chen's two-movement Wu Yu concerns itself with the confrontation of these conflicting cultural elements. But despite percussionist Chaiyaphat Prempree's efforts, the performance was too reserved and constricted to create the cacophonous riot of musical colour which broke out towards the end.

In contrast, Sheng's Deep Red came wonderfully alive in a virtuo- so performance. Mizuki Morimoto managed the demanding solo part with such grace and fluency that she effectively disproved the composer's comment that the marimba is affected by "a limited range of timbre" - he could surely never have heard her array of subtle colours and nuances of tone.

The premiere of conductor Eric Watson's own Inner Landscapes closed the programme. In 1991, he went into voluntary exile from his native United Kingdom to settle permanently in Singapore, since then establishing himself as an accomplished composer.

Effortlessly integrating Asian and European elements, this was an utterly delightful work and a fitting end to a programme of music which, albeit secretly, showed how productive self-imposed exile can be to a creative artist.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 03, 2015, with the headline 'Exile and creativity'. Print Edition | Subscribe