Strings and more

REVIEW / CONCERT

STRINGS FANTASY

Singapore Chinese Orchestra

Singapore Conference Hall/ Last Friday

The concert's English title, Strings Fantasy, told only part of the story. If only its poetic Chinese title, Qin Qin Yue Lu, which so cleverly incorporated surnames of the string soloists Qin Li-wei and Lu Siqing, were not so easily lost to translation.

Also unspecified in the title was the concert's first half devoted to the music of Zhao Jiping. The prominent Chinese composer is best known for writing scores for movies by Chinese directors Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, such as Yellow Earth (1984) and Raise The Red Lantern (1991).

Opening with Zhao's Guo Feng, which roughly translates to "National Airs", the orchestra conducted by Yeh Tsung showcased solos from pipa, sheng and erhu, besides parading the rarely heard bianzhong (bronze bells). The music began with a string chorale, working its way to a heroic allegro before finishing with a long crescendo.

Subtler was Melody Of The Secluded Orchid, a pastoral Confucian poem sung by soprano Zhang Ning Xia with obbligato parts for violin and guqin. This unusual combination worked well because Lu's incisive violin and Zhong Zhi Yue's striking but mellow guqin never sought to steal the limelight from Zhang.

The evening's best work was Zhuang Zhou's Dream, a single- movement cello concerto premiered by Yo-Yo Ma and the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra. Its achingly beautiful and elegiac strains found an equal in Qin's cello - an epitome of a long-breathed singing tone. Although punctuated by faster dance-like segments and an outburst of percussion, it was the lyrical representation of an ancient philosopher's ruminations that held sway.

Lu returned in the second half for two virtuosic showpieces. Gypsy fiddling seemed like the common denominator in Chen Gang's The Sun Shines Over Tashkurgan, with its distinctive Central Asian (or Xinjiang) flavour, and Pablo Sarasate's Carmen Fantasy.

Lu, armed with a healthy vibrato, was in his element for the latter's Habanera and Seguidilla, before romping home with the Danse Bohemienne. As an encore, he offered a Paganini theme and variations sonata movement.

The concert closed with Law Wai Lun's The Celestial Web, a cantata on the universality of Man, Nature and the cosmos, with words by local artist Tan Swie Hian. While slightly shorter than the Ode To Joy movement of Beethoven's Choral Symphony, it expressed similar lofty ideals.

Instead of solo voices, the texts were recited by Kang Ying Yu and Kong Xiang Chi, drama students from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. The Vocal Associates Festival Chorus (under chorus mistress Khor Ai Ming) sang the balance of the Chinese words with suitable gusto.

The orchestral accompaniment was excellent, with solo dizi providing florid ornamentation and dramatic bianzhong giving the proceedings an epic, timeless feel. This was an evening with far more than just fantastic strings, but one would not have guessed it without being there.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 28, 2016, with the headline 'Strings and more'. Print Edition | Subscribe