Concert review: Fitting tribute to composer Leong Yoon Pin, an understated genius

It is said that a composer's reputation suffers the most a few years posthumously, after the eulogies have quietened down and memories dimmed. It is a credit to the faculty, alumni and students of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts that they have not allowed the legacy of Leong Yoon Pin (1931-2011), Singapore's pioneering composer, to slip away.

His extensive library of scores, writings and memorabilia had been donated to the academy, and this concert on Thursday at the Lee Foundation Theatre revived chamber music that had not been performed for decades. It revealed an individual voice that reflected Leong's Asian heritage, Western formal training and eclectic influences. He was not a showy or flashy composer, but an introverted personality who bared his soul in a profound mastery of technique.

Celestial Peach Garden (1994) has the same scoring as Bartok's Sonata for two pianos and percussion, but does not imitate the Hungarian's nationalist and folk-inflected voice. The 12-minute long essay is more aligned with Benjamin Britten's idiom of blending dissonance with melody.

An extended procession of soft piano chords opens the work before unleashing a heaven-storming duel of piano and percussion that relives the Monkey God's battle with deities inspired by Chapter 5 from the Journey To The West. Pianists Shane Thio and Nicholas Loh with percussionists Ng Sok Wah and Sng Yiang Shan coped with the score's thorny yet intricate passagework admirably for an invigorating performance.

Sketches for oboe and piano (1985) were performed by the same artists who gave its world premiere, Joost Flach and Thio. The three movements were based on scenes captured by the composer in New Zealand. The Beach was a reflective and serene pastorale, almost impressionist in colour, contrasted with the violent and abrupt shifts of dynamics in Mineral Spring, which depicted bubbling volcanic mud pools. The closing Goats On A Slope was a playful country dance that further tested the technical prowess of the able duo.

A more lyrical side of the composer was displayed in a selection of six songs, settings of local poetry from the 1960s and early 1980s, sung by soprano Cherie Tse and mezzo-soprano Shireen Sanbhnani accompanied by pianist Loh. Awaiting had a dark, contemplative edge which was well-captured by Tse, while Sanbhnani impressed with her command of Chinese in the more light-hearted Marine Parade and The Firefly.

The best work was left for last, Interfusion for piano quintet (1989), performed by pianist Thio, violinist Ng Wei Ping, violist Lim Chun, cellist Li Jingli, bassist Wang Xu, and conducted by Zechariah Goh Toh Chai. This is the same group of instruments used in Schubert's Trout Quintet, but Leong was to express joy in a totally different way. In an unusual mix of atonalism and minimalism, he was to find a genuine coherence and resonance.

In its Adagio, each instrument was assigned an individual refrain of its own. Heard in isolation, they would have sounded fragmented, but put them together, here was literally the voice of a symphony. The closing fugue and interwoven counterpoint provided an indescribable high that could only be an expression of unbridled happiness. It behoves this and the next generation of musicians to rediscover and share in the quiet and understated genius that was Leong Yoon Pin.

stlife@sph.com.sg