Concert review: Gala: A Bowed Affinity by the Singapore Chinese Orchestra

Singapore Conference Hall

Last Friday

This pair of concerts was supposed to have been legendary Chinese erhu virtuoso Min Hui Fen's final orchestral engagement. Unfortunately she died from a cerebral haemorrhage on 12 May in Shanghai at the age of 69. What would have been a celebration of her artistry instead became a requiem and memorial.

Replacing her was one of her finest pupils Liu Guang Yu. Alongside Singapore Chinese Orchestra erhu principal Zhao Jian Hua, also a student of hers, and her son the conductor Liu Ju on the podium, this was to be more than a fitting tribute. Naturally, concertante erhu works championed by Min were the order of the day, but there was lots more to be served.

Liu performed three erhu works, beginning with Hua Yan Jun's well-known Reflections Of The Moon On Erquan. His was the instrumental personification of the human voice, heaving a breath, whispering and then singing in this elegiac number that was the blind composer's meditation on a moonlit landscape. The orchestration was light, sometimes just accompanied by a pipa, allowing the erhu's plaint to shine through.

Min's own arrangement of Aspiration Of The Honghu People was a patriotic work, full of martial fervour but tinged with a sense of melancholy, before the inevitable rallying to arms against the bogeymen Japanese. By the end of both works, the emotional Liu, who swayed and sashayed through the scores, was flushed with tears and perspiration. His ingenious little scherzo entitled Ants did much to relieve the angst.

Zhao was assigned Yang Li Qing's Song Of Sadness, another sob story based on The Wailing River, a melody used by Buddhists to square with the philosophy of "living as suffering". Overwrought emotions ruled, but it was Zhao's flowing cantabile that truly moved. As a pedagogue, the late-lamented Min truly left a legacy.

The balance of the concert was just as substantial, filled with mostly programmatic works. Opening the evening was the ancient tune The Moon High Above, originally for erhu solo, orchestrated by Peng Xiu Wen. The music was ruminative, evocative of nocturnal scenes before breaking into a quick dance and capped with a rousing ending.

Young Singaporean Wang Chen Wei's Sisters' Islands, in its original guise for Chinese orchestra, stood out of the pack as it used the Indonesian pelog scale in its melodies, which gave it a distinctive Nanyang flavour. Sumptuously orchestrated, the work also employed marimba, wind machine and a blown conch shell to depict the legend of the Singapore Straits.

Closing the evening was Xin Hu Guang's Gada Meilin, an established battle classic originally scored for Western orchestra. The Chinese orchestration by Liu Wen Jin is no less evocative, especially the serene opening with xiao and dizi solos and the section of stampeding steeds down the Mongolian steppes. Slightly longer than Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, the work nonetheless delivered with desired impact. An encore, the cheerful Hua Hao Yue Yuan (Beautiful Flowers, Round Moon) dispelled all gloom and lifted the spirits.