First-grade melodies from a first-grade composer

REVIEW / CONCERT

FLAVOURS OF CHINESE MUSIC

Singapore Chinese Orchestra

Victoria Concert Hall

Last Saturday

Victoria Concert Hall was packed to the brim at this concert by the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO) performing the music of composer Liu Xiu Jin.

Liu has been ranked by the People's Republic of China as a "first-grade composer", a reputation well deserved going by this single-composer showcase jointly conducted by his wife Hong Xia and SCO music director Yeh Tsung.

The first work, Continuous Prosperity, was a microcosm of the 21/2-hour concert. The Vocal Associates Festival Chorus (trained by contemporary classical soprano Khor Ai Ming) opened quietly over a low buzz from the strings, but soon, the orchestra broke out into celebratory mode, evoking Chinese New Year in the ancient city of Tianjin. Solos from suona, cello and ruan registered their pleasure in a rousing work where lyricism was never in short supply.

Then came four concertante works, beginning with two movements from The Seven Great Elements Of Buddhism (Tathagatagarbha) for konghou, an antique harp-like instrument, performed with assured aplomb by the statuesque Wu Lin.

Both The Earth and The Fire were slow movements filled with serenity and calm. Simultaneously plucked and strummed, the konghou brought out deep and mellow sonorities in lower registers and had a brilliant edge at the opposite end.

Familiar to SCO followers will be Liu's Legend Of The Merlion, a three-movement gaohu concerto with concertmaster Li Bao Shun as soloist, which has been recorded on CD by the orchestra.

The slow-fast-slow form highlighted a penchant for melody in the outer movements yet again, framing a stormy centre titled Raging Sea. Despite its title, there were no Nanyang influences in this music, which yet again found Li at his virtuosic and eloquent best.

By now, the listener would have discerned that mellifluous melodies are Liu's best suit.

This was most apparent in Lingering Snow On The Broken Bridge with dizi principal Yin Zhi Yang as impressive soloist. This single- movement concerto was a Romantic wallow, its picturesque subject centred on Hangzhou's West Lake, scene of innumerable romances. The pitter-patter of falling snow was prelude to music of unrelieved bliss.

Its diametric opposite was the two-movement erhu concerto Poetry Of The National Spirit, receiving its world premiere. This was an unabashed peaen to Chinese resilience as well as virtuoso showpiece.

Soloist Yu Hong Mei strove mostly for the latter, aided by dramatic gestures of musical violence and patriotism from the orchestra. This was the least melodically inspired and arguably the least memorable of the four concertos.

The grand finale saw a return of the choir for Hero Of The Mountain, the fourth movement from Poetry Of The Zhuang People. Percussion heralded its opening, which led into a joyous dance-song from the choir, before another sumptuous melody dominated the proceedings.

The encore was a sing-along with one of Liu's most famous songs, Wo Ai Ni, Sai Bei De Xue (I Love You, Northern Snow), certainly a first- grade melody, which was most warmly received.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 06, 2017, with the headline 'First-grade melodies from a first-grade composer'. Print Edition | Subscribe