Shanghai quintet showcase Chinese chamber music at its best

ELEGANT MUSIC SOCIETY OF SHANGHAI

Ding Yi Chinese Chamber Music Festival

Esplanade Recital Studio/Sunday

The Ding Yi Chinese Chamber Music Festival has become a regular annual fixture on the cultural calendar, attracting enthusiastic audiences to its concerts by international chamber groups from China and Taiwan. This year's offerings wrapped up with a performance by the aptly named Elegant Music Society of Shanghai Chinese Orchestra, an elite chamber ensemble of the famed Chinese institution.

The quintet specialise in the genre known as Jiangnan Shizhu, literally silk and bamboo music, which involves string and blown instruments. Typically these are the bowed erhu, plucked pipa and ruan, dizi or xiao (bamboo flutes), accompanied by the struck yangqin (Chinese dulcimer). Many consider this chamber music the true essense of Chinese music, far removed from massive Chinese symphonic orchestral forces.

Ancient tunes handed down through the centuries by oral tradition featured in this concert including Blossoms On Spring Moonlit Night and Song Of The Bamboo Robes, where the melodic line is shared by Duan Ai-ai's erhu, Jin Kai's xiao (transverse flute) and Yu Bing's pipa, and mostly unadorned, with Xia Qing's ruan and Yu Xiaona's yangqin providing added textures. Heterophony (different instruments playing the same melody) rules in place of the polyphony that is sine qua non in Western chamber music.

There was much beauty in the music's simplicity and clarity of lines, which never sounded cluttered or overly busy. One of Jiangnan music's greatest hits was included in the concert: Xing Jie (Walking The Streets), which opened at an ambling pace, before taking off in quick steps for a fluid finish.

As musical traditions evolved and Chinese composers became exposed to the West, certain techniques were imbibed and assimilated. Some of these could be found in composer Gu Guanren's rhapsodic Flavours Of Jiangnan, which sounded more contemporary in character and feel.

There was a solo segment that showcased the individual player's virtuosity. Zhao Songting's arrangement of Flying Partridges found dizi player Jin in fine fettle, luxuriating in long-held trills and fast passages of Paganinian fiendishness. Duan's solidly honed huqin tone in blind composer Hua Yanjun's contemplative The Moon Reflected in Erquan was rare thing of beauty.

The festival's host ensemble Ding Yi Music Company added Gu Guanren's The Beautiful Jiangnan as if to highlight the differences between small and larger groups, but that was merely the prelude to the World Premiere of Lu Pei's Divertimento. Specially commissioned for this festival, the 12-part work saw players of Ding Yi joined by the Shanghai Elegants conducted by Quek Ling Kiong.

In this witty old-meets-new composition, pentatonic melodies were subjected to rapid tempo changes, the polyphony of the Javanese gamelan and the intriguing patchwork that is 20th-century minimalism. Despite its tricky idiom and technical challenges, the merry band of virtuosos pulled off its intricacies with much polish and aplomb. Whoever said that Chinese instrumental music had to be lao gudong, or antiquated?