Asian Cultural Symphony Orchestra shines with Asian works and Western techniques

Sitar player Krsna Tan and tabla player Govin Tan with the Asian Cultural Symphony Orchestra.
Sitar player Krsna Tan and tabla player Govin Tan with the Asian Cultural Symphony Orchestra.PHOTO: LEONARD YAP

REVIEW / CONCERT

PREMIERE

Asian Cultural Symphony Orchestra

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall/Last Saturday

The Asian Cultural Symphony Orchestra was inaugurated last year to perform Asian symphonic works, with the mission of "celebrating them with equal regard as their Western counterparts".

Its third concert got off to an excellent start with young Singaporean composer Wang Chenwei's Confluence.

As its title implies, the work cleverly fused themes based on Indian and Indonesian scales with Western compositional techniques. The flavour was unmistakably Asian, down to raucous rhythms and slurring of melodies, before thematic material developed into a Bachian fugue.

Originally composed for Chinese instruments, the world premiere of its Western orchestration made for a rousing opener.

Another world premiere was Taiwanese composer Wang Yi-lu's The Blue Planet: Earth, an erhu concerto featuring soloist Wong Qin Kai. Alternating between violence and serenity, the work pondered about Earth's origins and future, with the virtuosic erhu being its muse.

Melodic interest included a theme reminiscent of Edelweiss (from the musical The Sound Of Music), while the often lively orchestral parts reminded this listener of works by Revueltas and Bernstein.

Xin Huguang's Gada Meiren (Ga Da Mei Lin) of 1956 is an established Chinese repertoire classic.

The symphonic poem used a well-known Mongolian melody inspired by the eponymous warrior and national hero, first heard on solo oboe and developed into a full-blown rhapsody.

Conducted by Dedric Wong, the music ambled from a pastorale opening into battle mode, the sort now often regarded as epic film music, before settling into an elegiac denouement.

The young orchestra members coped well in the two-hour-long concert, playing with effervescent energy and in many occasions, no little refinement.

Their Asian adventure continued with late Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar's 40-minute-long Symphony (realised by David Murphy), conducted by Adrian Chiang.

Composed in 2010 while in his 90s, the work was closer in spirit to the 1960s to 1970s, when he found worldwide fame through his association with The Beatles and Yehudi Menuhin. Each of its four movements is based on a raga, with the orchestra introducing the themes before brothers Krsna (sitar) and Govin Tan (tabla) enter the fray.

Actual raga performances can last the best part of a morning or evening, but confined by the symphonic form, their scope for improvisation was limited to the score's dictates. Such is the "conflict" between Asian music and Western concert genres, stereotypes often labelled as symphonies, concertos, suites and the like.

Nonetheless, this did little to curb the enjoyment of both soloists, with the finale (Banjara) culminating in Govin's extended tabla improvisation, Krsna's sitar spiel, an apparent duel and, with the orchestra, an ecstatic romp to the finish.

Vincent Tan's exuberant Train To Euston, featuring the six-men fusion band Flame Of The Forest (violin, sitar, tabla, keyboard and two electric basses), served as an enjoyable encore.

With cheers aplenty, the evening which started like a serious gig closed like a rock concert.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 11, 2017, with the headline 'Rousing blend of music'. Print Edition | Subscribe