While symphonic composition for Chinese instruments is a 20th-century phenomenon, chamber music has existed for millennia, passed down by oral tradition and its practitioners from antiquity. Jiangnan si zhu is a hallowed tradition of intimate chamber music that thrived south of the Yangtze River, the reference to silk (si) and bamboo (zhu) being the bowed string and woodwind instruments used by the players.
Typically such an ensemble would feature a quartet, including the accompanying yangqin (dulcimer). This 80-minute concert at the Esplanade Recital Studio on Tuesday, titled The Charm Of Silk And Bamboo, was performed by members of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra. Showcasing seven virtuosos and led by its associate conductor Moses Gay, it did not profess historical performance practice or authenticity. Adapting to modern advancements and a considerably expanded geography, each soloist was given a chance to shine in front of a very enthusiastic full-house audience.
Two popular Cantonese tunes, Blossoms Of The Cotton Tree and Song Of The Full Moon, were poetry in the hands of erhu player Tao Kai Li, who looked resplendent herself in an ornately embroidered red gown. A singing tone and the ability to tug at the heartstrings of nostalgia were key to their success.
Lim Kiong Pin's Dream Of Bali featured the organ-like pipes of the sheng, performed by Ong Yi Horng. The pentatonic nem scale - commonly heard on the gamelan - was employed, first as a reverie-like introduction and later as an animated finale that had the same repeated rhythmic motif as the popular 1960s song Stand By Me.
Foong Chui San's strummed ruan (a lute resembling a banjo) and Lee Khiok Hua's bowed gehu (with a similar timbre and range as the cello) combined sensitively in The Song Of Mulan, which began with martial strains improvised by Foong that portrayed the cross-dressing lady warrior of legend.
The zhonghu played by Sim Boon Yew and banhu by Tao highlighted the different ranges occupied by the instruments, in Mongolian song Pulling The Camel and Ge Yan's Carriage Running Over The Fields respectively. The latter was a fast romp, aided by conductor Gay striking its rhythm on a ma ling, jingling bells usually associated with sleigh rides in the snow.
Let's Talk About The Past in Sim Boon Yew and Tan Chye Tiong's arrangement, a medley of popular Minnan and Taiwanese songs, received its world premiere. Tan performed on a series of 11 blown instruments from the dizi family, including the Japanese shakuhachi, a pair of xuns (ocarinas), paixiao (panpipes) and what appeared like a snake-charmer's pipe. This breathless tour de force received the longest applause.
All seven instruments, including Qu Jian Qing's yangqin, had equal prominence in Zhou Cheng Long's Festival Of Mountain And Forest, a rhapsody based on Yi tribal themes which brought the concert to a stirring close.
A very lively post-concert discussion hosted by composer-compere Liong Kit Yeng showed that appreciation of Chinese chamber music is a well worth cultivating. Kudos to Esplanade and the Singapore Chinese Orchestra for making it happen.