Concert review: Virtuosos of Chinese Music by Ding Yi Music Company

Esplanade Concert Hall

April 19

The Ding Yi Music Company's opening concert of its annual season is an inspirational and aspirational affair. As with previous seasons, the concert brings together some of China's top instrumentalists, whether seasoned veterans or rising young names, in a showcase event that presents them as paradigms of virtuosity, hence models to emulate.

Conducted by its Music Director Tay Teow Kiat, the young chamber group accompanied and supported the visiting soloists in a variety of concertante works.

Performing first was huqin exponent Jiang Ke Mei who played on five bowed instruments of different registers. Two versions of the banhu, covering the high treble tessitura, featured in Zhou Qi Chang and Ding Yong Sheng's Festivities Of Kunming and Zhao Guo Liang's Henan Bang-Zi Folk Song. Their operatic voice, with a nasal and almost falsetto quality, distinguished both rousing works while easily rising above the percussive beat.

An other-worldly sonority from the diminutive jinghu was the highlight in the well-known Ye Shen Chen (The Deep Night) from Farewell My Concubine. In the patriotic martial music of Zhang Chang Cheng and Yuan Ye's Return Of The Red Army, Jiang's erhu danced and lamented, well accompanied by Yick Jue Ru's yangqin.

Wang Wei on the guzheng provided some of the most evocative moments in the concert. Cheng Gong Liang's By The Yili River was a Xinjiang serenade, a slow melody from the Silk Road with an unmistakeable Middle Eastern flavour. Zhao Deng Shan's Jingling Eaves Of The Temple was a meditative work of exquisite beauty, where a strong vibrato applied on resonant chords simulated the distant echoes of Buddhist wind chimes and bells.

Pipa virtuoso Yang Wei may be familiar to listeners of Western classical music as he has appeared as a member of Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble. With Ding Yi, he gave the World Premiere of Lin Hsin-Pin's Formosa Rhapsody, a pleasant medley of Taiwanese folksongs incorporating some aboriginal and contemporary touches.

The out-and-out tour de force came in the ancient classic Shi Mian Mai Fu (Ambush From Ten Sides), possibly the world's oldest piece of instrumental programme music. Re-enacting the famous battle of 202 B.C. which established the Han dynasty, he demonstrated a panoply of techniques on solo pipa depicting men, horses and wheels in conflict, with clashing metal and cannons for good measure.

The three soloists were interviewed in Chinese on their art and prowess, and invariably all demurred on being referred to as da shi or great masters. Typically self-deprecatory was the reply of Yang who conceded, "I do not know anything about being a master, I am just a musician."

All three were united in the final work, the newly-commissioned triple concerto Cantabile by Liu Chang. The title is probably a misnomer, as the work was more like a symphonic rhapsody based on Henan Bangzi opera themes. With opportunities galore for solo display from the soloists, this brought the almost three-hour-long concert to an impressively rowdy close.