Melodic dreams of home

REVIEW / CONCERT

DREAMS OF HOMELAND

Singapore Chinese Orchestra

Victoria Concert Hall/Sunday

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Many orchestral concerts are sold on the strength of guest soloists, but seldom has a concert been so dominated by a single figure as this one.

Suzhou native Zhang Weiliang, one of the world's great dizi masters, performed almost throughout the entire two hours.

The concert began without him, as conductor Yeh Tsung started with Zhao Jiping's Homeland Nostalgia, a movement from the orchestral suite Silk Road Melody. The impressionistic piece with Debussyan echoes dwelled on several Cantonese melodies before quietly alluding to the well-known tune Colourful Clouds Chasing The Moon.

Then the marathon began, with Zhang performing his own Tears Of Flowers. Based on Suzhou pingtan, an intimate form of chamber music, he crafted a deep and throaty timbre from the dadizi (a low-pitched flute), rich in vibrato and full of atmosphere. The rhapsodic work ambled from a slow and ruminative beginning before blazing to a spectacular and fast close.

This form also dictated Zhao Songting and Cao Xing's The Spring Orchid, where Zhang's qudi held sway as a Kun opera melody was subjected to a phantasmagorical flight of fancy.

While the instrument simulated nuances and inflections of the human voice, it basked in an extended cadenza which was reminiscent of the dizzying flight of a humming bird. The technique of circular breathing ensured that streams of notes piled on in a relentless manner and the audience could be excused for feeling breathless on his behalf.

The world premiere of Cui Quan's Southern Wind was another excellent study in breath control, its indolent strains filled with trills and tremolos which Zhang handled with striking aplomb. This very pleasant work had a contemporary feel and is a welcome addition to the expanding dizi repertoire.

The most modern work was Chen Qigang's San Xiao (Three Laughs) which featured just four players: Zhang on shakuhachi and dizi, with Yu Jia (pipa), Xu Hui (guzheng) and Huang Gui Fang (sanxian). Each instrument had extremely difficult parts, their individual spiels being abstract rather than literal expressions on the subject of humour.

The incessant pace abated with a folk-like dizi melody which had a serene and calming effect on the proceedings.

The evening's final work was Zhang's double dizi concerto, Dreams Of Homeland. Its four movements were an evocation of nostalgia, reflecting on childhood and youth in Jiangnan (the region south of the Yangtze).

Zhang was partnered by his former student Zheng Zhi, now a Singapore Chinese Orchestra member. Interplay between them was excellent - from the gentler and congenial opening movement, the rhythmic and scherzo-like Joy Of Homeland, to the vigorous dance of the quickfire finale Journey To Homeland.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 23, 2017, with the headline 'Melodic dreams of home'. Print Edition | Subscribe