Concert Review: Nifty guitar playing gets audience roaring in delight

It would seem strange that Japanese music should feature prominently in a guitar orchestra's repertoire. The most plausible reason is that the guitar ensemble formed by instruments of different registers and ranges (called a Niibori ensemble) was a Japanese innovation. It was during the 1980s when Alex Abishegaden introduced the Niibori method to Singapore, when he founded the Guitar Ensemble of National University of Singapore (GENUS).

In turn, alumni of GENUS formed the Xpose Guitar Ensemble, which celebrated its 10th anniversary with this concert on Saturday at the School of the Arts concert hall.

Xpose founder and conductor Ow Leong San, who is a prominent figure in both guitar and wind communities in Singapore, energetically led this two-hour long concert that was both interesting and eclectic. Hiro Fujikake's Jongara-Sho was a stirring arrangement of a well-known shamisen melody. It opened percussively with the guitars creating a ceremonial drum-like introduction before launching into the main tune, where the plucking of the shamisen (the three-stringed instrument that resembles the Chinese sanxian) was simulated.

Sounding not even remotely Japanese was the World Premiere of Yuudai Hatanaka's guitar concerto Soul Of The Samurai. Its three movements ostensibly depicted martial, spiritual and revolutionary aspects of the Bushido code, but could easily have come from the pen of a Brazilian, Cuban or Latin American composer. This is not meant to be a criticism but when samba or tango melodies and rhythms dominate, having an Oriental title seemed superfluous, even meaningless.

Nevertheless, this was a perfect vehicle for young Singaporean guitar virtuoso Kevin Loh, 15, presently studying at the prestigious Menuhin School in England, to shine. He was amplified to stand out from the rest of the guitar throng and gave a tour de force of technical bravura. His confidence and sheer sturdiness was the main reason why one would easily forgive the work for confusing sword-fighting with serenading.

Loh was also centrestage for videogame composer Nobuo Uematsu's Vamo Alla Flamenco arranged by the ensemble's sole flautist Mohamad Rasull, delving on Spanish dances such as the jota and fandango. In such company, the only non-Japanese composer Pascual Narro's Espana Cani, which quotes the popular malaguena, did not seem out of place.

There was a poignant moment when conductor Ow dedicated his own arrangement of Totoro, a medley of Joe Hisaishi tunes from the animated movie My Neighbour Totoro (1988), to Florentina Widodo, biology teacher and fellow guitarist who perished in the AirAsia crash. Ironically, this was followed by Hatanaka's Partition Orage, an ensemble work depicting scenes of stormy weather.

The most bizarre work was Kengo Momose's Gold Rush, which saw soloists Leonardo de Guzman and Lim Sheng Jun in cowboy hats playing on electric guitars. Here was a schizophrenic mix of styles, pitting the traditional with the new, in what may be described as spaghetti Western meets the Beatles and heavy metal. The stridency of both electric guitars almost completely overwhelmed their acoustic counterparts, but the full-house audience of mostly teenagers roared their hearty approval.

Their reward was a crooned number of Cantopop karaoke sung by one of the guitarists, with the ensemble as dutiful accompanist. Whoever said that guitar concerts were supposed to be boring?