Joyful symphonic fantasy marks orchestra's triumphant return

The Singapore Chinese Orchestra is the first musical group here to present a live concert before a live audience after performances were suspended as a result of Covid-19.
The Singapore Chinese Orchestra is the first musical group here to present a live concert before a live audience after performances were suspended as a result of Covid-19.PHOTO: CHANG TOU LIANG



Singapore Chinese Orchestra

Singapore Conference Hall

Last Friday, Sept 11

Sept 11 is remembered for the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, but in Singapore this year, it marked the return of concert life after six months in the wilderness.

The pandemic is still with us, but traces of the old normality are returning, as the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO) became the first musical group to present a live concert before a live audience.

Greeted by warm and appreciative applause, a pared-down 23-person chamber orchestra, led by music director Yeh Tsung, performed an hour-long concert for a socially distanced audience limited to just 50 people. The first thought that came to mind: What a pleasure it was to witness music firsthand rather than on a screen and through a pair of headphones.

Zhao Jiping's rousing Celebration Overture opened the concert. Though its first pages were a blatant rip-off of Glinka's Ruslan And Ludmilla Overture, there was still enough original material to sustain interest.

The big erhu melody, later heard on concertmaster Li Baoshun's jinghu, was memorable, as was Jin Shiyi's suona solo, which rose above the throng at its apotheosis.

Conductor Yeh compared the evening's programme with a four-movement symphony. Thus, the rendition of Reflection Of The Moon On Erquan by legendary blind erhu player Hua Yanjun - also known as Abing - served as the slow second movement.

Orchestrated for bowed strings by Wu Zhuqiang and Moses Gay, the ensemble played like an expanded string quartet, with melodic interest sustained by gaohus and erhus.

Some have compared this with Barber's Adagio For Strings, but these works are actually very different. Abing's Moon is atmospheric and meditative but not weepy, evoking nostalgia rather than tragedy or outright grief. The overall effect was particularly beautiful.

Still on popular melodies, Molihua (Jasmine) was relived in a form of a symphonic fantasy by master orchestrator Liu Wenjin.

The highly recognisable tune was heard at the outset and subject to a fine series of variations. Among the solo instruments highlighted were the dizi and Jin's suona, which became its most prominent voice.

The concert's final movement was an abridged 10-minute version of Law Wai Lun's The Celestial Web, a large-scale work commissioned by the Singapore Arts Festival and premiered by the SCO in 2003.

Gone, however, were the recitations, chorus and Tan Swie Hian's words which hailed the universality of man, but Schiller's Ode To Joy message came through in the music, which opened with deliberate quotes from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

Eclectic as this music was, with influences from Ravel, Gershwin and film music, it did not outstay its welcome. The opportunity to enjoy its intricate instrumentation, Zhao Jianhua's erhu solo and a sentimental wallow towards the end was well worth the time.

The general feeling of optimism continued into the celebratory encore Hua Hao Yue Yuan (Blooming Flowers, Full Moon) with a customary clap-along.

What was there not to enjoy?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2020, with the headline 'Joyful symphonic fantasy marks orchestra's triumphant return'. Print Edition | Subscribe