Concert review: String concert celebrates three generations of local composers

As the nation celebrates its jubilee year and the pioneer generation with SG50 events, the classical music world also celebrates one of the pioneer composers in Singapore, the late Cultural Medallion recipient Leong Yoon Pin. His contribution to music was celebrated in a joint concert by Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and its Institute of Southeast Asian Arts last week, and on Sunday, local contemporary music group Chamber.Sounds strung together five works for string quartet by three generations of composers.

The concert at Esplanade Recital Studio opened with works by the third-generation composers Lim Tee Heong and Jeremiah Li. A common thread through these works is the inspiration by tragic events, and most of these had darker undertones. Lim's Fading Towards Darkness, written for string trio in 2001 in response to the sinking of a Russian submarine a year earlier, was pensive and sorrowful. Led by Nanako Takata on the violin, the trio milked the earthy, mellow qualities of their instruments in a heart-rending elegy.

Li's five-movement quartet Berliner Partita evokes scenes and memories of a trip to Berlin. The trio before was joined by violinist Ng Wei Ping, whose robust and animated playing often overpowered the quartet. The more joyful outer movements bookended the three sad and tense middle movements. The first movement had heavy Bachian influences - Li made use of the soulful, brooding timbre of the cello as a statement of grief in the second movement, and this was brought out well by James Ng on the cello.

The third movement, Li's personal response of anger and regret at seeing an underground installation of empty bookshelves signifying the number of books burnt during Hitler's reign, teemed with dissonances.

Over a constant plucked ostinato from the cello, the other strings played a sharp-edged, fragmented melody portraying anger, contrasted with long, bowed lines portraying the feelings of regret. The tremolo in the upper strings provided a desolate chill at the Memorial To The Murdered Jews, and this was dominated by an outstanding violin solo by Wei Ping.

The last movement, the most tonal and cheerful, reflected Christmastime and the festive markets. Here, Li strung together snippets of Christmas songs, even adding in a humorous segment at the end where the cellist James Ng feigned drunkeness, playing out of time, only to be reprimanded by Ng Wei Ping. Throughout the work, Li showcased the versatility of string quartet writing to set different atmospheres, and this was vividly captured by the quartet.

The second half of the concert was somewhat more positive, and this was evident not only audibly, but also visually as the quartet had changed to red shirts from black in the first half. Opening the second half was Zechariah Goh Toh Chai's Valour, written for two violins. Takata beautifully handled the virtuosic string writing with poise and a quiet confidence, and was soon joined by the more extravagant Ng in a musical sparring match where imitation and competition abound.

Leong Yoon Pin's Theme and Variations provided a glimpse of the beginnings of composition in Singapore, where Leong artfully combined East and West in his unique style. The engaging and wonderfully authoritative playing from the quartet brought this brief, delightful composition to life.

Ending off the concert was Kelly Tang's suite from his music to the 2006 Australian feature film Feet Unbound. At times reminiscent of Philip Glass, and at other times bringing to mind street scenes with the combination of ethnic modes and catchy underlying rhythms, this picturesque work featured the quartet at their most balanced, where they breathed together with absolute unanimity despite their musical differences.

In all, the programming by Chamber.Sounds and the quartet's efforts in learning and performance of the music to a high standard in a concert have shown that the celebration of SG50 need not be extravagant to be meaningful.

Stringing Generations

Chamber.Sounds

Esplanade Recital Studio/Sunday