Smartphones, swordplay in concert

As a composer, Tan Dun seems drawn to novelty. Two of his recent works were included in this concert and both had novelty high on the agenda.
As a composer, Tan Dun seems drawn to novelty. Two of his recent works were included in this concert and both had novelty high on the agenda.PHOTO: TAN DUN

REVIEW / CONCERT

TAN DUN - FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE

Ralph van Raat (piano), Xiao Di (Peking opera soprano)

Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Tan Dun (conductor)

Esplanade Concert Hall

Thursday


As a composer, Tan Dun seems drawn to novelty. Two of his recent works were included in this concert and both had novelty high on the agenda.

Smartphones provided the novelty factor in Passacaglia - Secret Of Wind And Birds.

In an interview with The Straits Times, Tan Dun had expressed a hope that 1,000 phones would be set off during the concert playing a birdsong on an app which concertgoers needed to have downloaded in advance.

And I reckon his wish was granted. The spectacle of 1,000 tiny blue screens being waved in the air by the orchestra and audience was even more amazing than the rasp of electronically canned birdsong emanating from 1,000 tiny speakers.

Beyond the smartphones, the piece was indescribably dull.

It comprised a trite pattern of notes played over and over again, sometimes by lots of instruments, sometimes by a few, sometimes whispered and sometimes hummed by the members of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

Getting an orchestra to hum seems something Tan Dun likes to do and he did it again in his Concerto For Piano And Peking Opera Soprano - Farewell My Concubine.

Retelling the ancient tale of a king and his concubine, this also had a subtext about West and East.

The West was represented by Ralph van Raat, in white tie and tails, at the piano (which Tan Dun, woefully misrepresenting Mozart, described as the king of all instruments) and the East by Xiao Di, adorned in brilliant gold robes.

The novelty here was that Xiao floated along the front of the stage waving a pair of swords around, much to the consternation of the cellists who, having been restored to their once traditional place at the front of the stage, saw whirring blades pass within millimetres of their valuable strings.

Raat's impressive feat of playing his major role entirely from memory was somewhat eclipsed by Xiao's brilliant swordplay and dramatic acrobatics - although compared to her vocalisations which veered between the mewing of a Siamese cat and the stringy whine of an erhu, Raat had the better musical deal.

For me, however, the real heroes were the Singapore Symphony musicians, who were magnificent in every area.

The percussionists, with their dazzling array of instruments, some of which they dipped into water, did a wonderful job, but the crown for the finest player must belong to tubist extraordinaire, Hidehiro Fujita.

Tan Dun has said that he wants to be thought of equally as a conductor and composer.

He drew impressive results by conducting his own music, but when it came to the two Bartok scores - Dance Suite and The Miraculous Mandarin - which book-ended the programme, he was deeply unimpressive.

His empty theatrical gestures did nothing to mould the orchestral playing into any sort of coherent musical entity.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 22, 2017, with the headline 'Smartphones, swordplay in concert'. Print Edition | Subscribe