Musical window to Chinese literary classics

Conductor Yeh Tsung's concert gives a glimpse into the four great classical novels of Chinese literature.
Conductor Yeh Tsung's concert gives a glimpse into the four great classical novels of Chinese literature.
Conductor Yeh Tsung's (above) concert gives a glimpse into the four great classical novels of Chinese literature.
Conductor Yeh Tsung's (above) concert gives a glimpse into the four great classical novels of Chinese literature.

From the dramatic Battle Of Red Cliffs, which saw an army of 50,000 toppling a 120,000-strong force in a surprise triumph that heralded the end of the Han dynasty, to the lively exploits of the monkey king Sun Wukong, the Singapore Chinese Orchestra will offer a glimpse of four great classical novels of Chinese literature.

On Feb 20, as part of the Esplanade's Huayi - Chinese Festival of Arts, the orchestra will set to music the romance between Jia Baoyu and his cousin Lin Daiyu in Dream Of The Red Chamber, the turmoil of warfare at the Red Cliffs in Romance Of The Three Kingdoms, the tale of Sun Wukong in Journey To The West and the ties of brotherhood in The Water Margin.

The orchestra's music director and conductor Yeh Tsung says with a laugh: "I don't intend to present the four novels in one evening. It's just not possible. So I picked four angles for the audience to look into the stories through music.

"It opens a window for them and if they're interested, they can read the books and find out more."

  • BOOK IT / THE FOUR GREAT CLASSICAL NOVELS IN CONCERT

  • WHERE: Esplanade ConcertHall, 1 Esplanade Drive

    WHEN: Feb 20, 7.30pm

    ADMISSION: $38 to $78 fromSistic

The China-born 65-year-old has been with the orchestra since 2002. The 2013 Cultural Medallion recipient grew up reading these novels, first thumbing through them in comic-book form as a child before moving on to the texts.

"I spent time outside China, in the United States, Europe, Singapore, and I began to realise these four books are so important because they talk about issues and values that are universal: love and death, war and peace, human nature, from the very beautiful to the very ugly," he says.

It took him four to five years to conceptualise the concert and piece it together.

The Dream Of The Red Chamber and The Water Margin suites are based on popular songs from television adaptations of the novels, while a taste of Romance Of The Three Kingdoms is captured through Chinese writer Su Shi's poem, Reminiscing At Red Cliffs.

For Journey To The West, a composition is being written by the orchestra's composer-in-residence Law Wai Lun and Hong Kong composer Lincoln Lo, inspired by the 1965 animated film Havoc In Heaven.

During the interview earlier this month, Yeh says: "I still don't have the score yet. And though I'm anxious, that's what makes the production exciting, don't you think? The ink will still be wet on the score when we perform."

A newly edited film, one-fifth the duration of the original cartoon, will be screened as the new composition is played.

Law, who is in his 70s, says he reread the first six chapters of Journey To The West in preparation.

He says: "This became an important guide to my creation, but it has also complicated how I shape the music. The character Sun Wukong has always been a hero to me, but after reading the novel, his actions can be rather unreasonable.

"This positioning of Sun Wukong may differ greatly from most audience's impression of him. This is perhaps a challenge of reinterpreting a classic work."

The concert is an example of the orchestra's efforts to stretch boundaries while staying true to its roots.

Yeh says: "We still play the old format - overture, concerto, symphony - but every once in a while, we want to jump out of that, walk out of a safe zone to try new things and get new inspiration to bring in a new audience.

"But when we do new elements, I always ensure we include some classical elements too. We do have an innovative part, but we'll continue to mix it with the traditional and classical."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 26, 2016, with the headline 'Musical window to Chinese literary classics'. Print Edition | Subscribe