Butterfly Lovers takes flight with 87-year-old conductor

Guest conductor Zheng Xiao Ying engaged the audience before the performance of each piece.
Guest conductor Zheng Xiao Ying engaged the audience before the performance of each piece.PHOTO: SINGAPORE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

REVIEW / CONCERT

THE BUTTERFLY LOVERS

Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Victoria Concert Hall

Last Friday

The Chinese New Year season was good enough reason as any for the Singapore Symphony Orchestra to perform an entire programme of Chinese music.

The Butterfly Lovers was an obvious selling point, but the real privilege was witnessing guest conductor Zheng Xiao Ying in action.

She is the doyenne of China's woman conductors and at 87 this year, also the oldest maestro to lead the SSO.

Unique is her ability to engage an audience by addressing them before the performance of each piece.

She spoke in Mandarin with clear, radiant tones, enthusing and waxing lyrical about the music.

This was probably a relief for Chinese-speaking audience members who specially came, as Marc Rochester's very comprehensive programme notes had not been translated into Chinese.

The show began with Li Huan Zhi's Spring Festival Overture, where raucous percussion ruled. Lyrical moments came in Pan Yun's plaintive oboe solo, providing dynamic and narrative balance to this festive piece.

The orchestra responded with much alertness and rhythmic savvy to Zheng's directions, but timbral colours were the forte in the next work, Xu Zhen Min's A Tone Picture Of Border Village.

Imagine a scene in China's Far West clothed in luscious Technicolor, a score combining Debussy's impressionist hues, Bartok and Rosza's sensuous renderings of folk music and infectious frontier-town rhythms of Copland and Ginastera.

Big solos for Jamie Hersch's French horn, Evgueni Brokmiller's flute and Igor Yuzefovich's violin all distinguished themselves in this delightfully indulgent wallow.

The orchestration prowess of Respighi was relived in the Asian premiere of Huang Ruo's Three Folk Songs. One will not hear more opulent readings of Feng Yang Hua Gu (Flower Drum Song), Kang Ding Love Song and The Girl From Da Ban, all familiar tunes, than this.

It would seem that these composers could not wait to break out from traditional heterophony to engage in unashamedly decadent polyphony.

Conductor Zheng quipped that nobody in China knows The Butterfly Lovers as Hu Die Ai Ren, but rather the immortal legend of Liang Zhu (short for Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai).

Composed by Chen Gang and He Zhanhao in 1958, it was a bold experiment to translate the characteristic expressions of Chinese opera into a totally foreign idiom of Western musical composition.

The result was a virtuoso violin concerto in single-movement sonata-fantasy form.

The soloist was SSO associate concertmaster Kong Zhao Hui, who has performed this work more than 100 times, including in SSO's concert tour to Switzerland in 2000. Garbed in resplendent hong bao red, his reading came as naturally as breathing and vocalising for an opera singer. His expressive use of portamentos (slides) was well judged, blending perfectly in duet with Ng Pei Sian's cello and even furthering the music's fraught emotions with violent stamps on the floor.

The orchestra provided perfect partnership, including highlighting several portamentos of their own to good effect.

Huang Yi Jun's lovely orchestration of Liu Tien Hua's Liang Xiao (Beautiful Evening) saw the first violins' melody gently accompanied by pizzicato strings.

The concert concluded with Chen Le-Gang's Sainaim Rhapsody, based on Xinjiang and Central Asian melodies, a showpiece which could have been first cousin to Ippolitov-Ivanov's Caucasian Sketches.

After standing for two hours, still sprightly and energised by a standing ovation, Zheng offered as encore another seasonal favourite: Huang Yi Jun's popular Hua Hao Yue Yuan (Beautiful Flowers, Round Moon).

An audience clap-along was the inevitable result for this feel-good concert.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2016, with the headline 'Butterfly Lovers takes flight with 87-year-old conductor'. Print Edition | Subscribe