Concert Review: Music from a golden age

The Song and Tang dynasties represented a golden age of the literary arts in China, which flourished until its conquest by the warlike Mongols of the Yuan dynasty. Its poetry inspired no less than the likes of Gustav Mahler in his autumnal lyric symphony The Song Of The Earth.

This concert last Saturday at the Esplanade Recital Studios was by the Ding Yi Music Company conducted by Lim Yau, with music by Zechariah Goh Toh Chai, was somewhat less ambitious while attempting to encompass similarly epic subjects.

An added dimension to this production was the projection of calligraphy by former Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts president Choo Thiam Siew, who is also chief executive of the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre. Narrator Lee Yong Tick read the poems in Chinese as a prelude to each of the sung movements.

The first part comprised three poems, beginning with Butterflies Over Flowers, with hushed plucked strings (ruan, pipa, cello and bass) creating a suitably serene atmosphere for tenor Jeremy Koh’s impassioned song and recitation. Women's voices from the NAFA Chamber Choir were unaccompanied in Li Bai’s Qing Ping Diao (Pure Serene Music) and a mixed choir incanted the word fei (Chinese for flight) countless times in Peng, a segment from Zhuang Zi’s Xiao Yao You (Carefree Wondering).

Of course, such polyphony in composer Goh’s scores were foreign and even non-existent in those times, but his intention was not to recreate ancient music, but to relive its spirit through modern compositional techniques. He succeeded with a combination of idiomatic choral writing and coherence in conception, even if the choir was at times not always spot-on in intonation.

The second part was Da Feng Ge (Song Of The Rising Wind), conceived like a six-movement cantata on the subject of war and ancient chivalry. Two bare-chested drummers opened the work with a pugilistic show of belligerence, heralding tenor Koh’s Song Of Gai Xia, a show of anger and indignation that had both spoken and sung elements, accompanied by chanting male voices.

Soprano Su Yiwen provided the most glittering display of vocal prowess in Reply To Xiang Yu, the concubine Yuji’s song of anguish and despair. Two purely instrumental movements set the scene for the grand finale. Kenny Chan’s sanxian led the charge in Besiege From All Sides, while the stage was bathed in blood red light in Battle Of Gai Xia, where the strident winds and high pitched strings chillingly depicted scenes of carnage.

The closing Song Of The Rising Wind for full choral and orchestral forces was a glorious paean to ultimate victory, but a nuanced one where reflection stood in parity with celebration. This 30-minute-long long work could be considered a Singaporean Chinese answer to Prokofiev’s war-inspired cantata Alexander Nevsky, and that is saying quite something.