A taste of Sichuan



Chengdu Modern Chamber Orchestra

Esplanade Recital Studio/Tuesday

The final evening of the Ding Yi Chinese Chamber Music Festival 2017 was spent in the company of the Chengdu Modern Chamber Orchestra. Formed last year, the 15- member ensemble gave the audience a good overview of what is cutting edge in contemporary Chinese chamber music as well as a taste of its home province of Sichuan.

Its principal conductor Xiao Chao was also the composer of the first piece, Music & Joyful In Shu.

Shu is the old name of Sichuan and the work's three sections played like a precis of the region's history and culture. The meditative opening quoted local folk songs, while its middle section was a rhythmic play on operatic phrases when every instrument turned percussion. The final section was a fast folk dance and, despite the speed, textures were lucid and clear.

Gao Ping's Qing Feng (Pure Wind) was an atmospheric slow movement filled with the calming mimicry of nature. A haunting dizi (flute) solo was the epitome of tranquillity before a gradual stirring of the senses as the pace picked up.

More traditional was Shu Palace Banquet, composed by a committee of three in 1981, which relived the formalities of court pageantry. Located in China's midwest, the influence of Central and South-Asian music was inevitable, manifested by segments of syncopated rhythms, vigorous drumming and a brilliant ending.

Contemporary Western influences came to play in Zhang Zhi Liang's Legendary Bird, where muted dissonances and quiet sound effects depicted a primordial ooze from which the eponymous phoenix-like bird emerged. The propensity for avian violence ensured a thunderous middle section, before string glissandi on the huqins provided a subdued close.

Despite its innocuous title, Petals To Heaven by Guo Wen Jing was the thorniest work in the concert. Dedicated to victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, its movements recounted the human tragedy and its aftermath. The opening movement Zhai Nan (Disaster), described as Pendereckian, lacerated the ears with shrill, screeching and scraping tones before ebbing away.

The fourth movement was a "Dance of Death" in the repetitious minimalist vein, the demented kind more associated with horror movie music. The sixth movement, Ji (Ritual), initially pitted zhonghu (low- pitched bowed string instrument) against double bass. With erhu and sheng (multi-reed mouth organ) joining the fray, the catharsis - filled with a sense of unease - was complete.

A far more cheerful end to the concert came with Zhao Ji Ping's Qiao's Grand Courtyard, based on music written for the popular television serial of the same title. Orchestra turned choir and conductor Xiao left the podium to play solos on erhu and jinghu (high-pitched bowed string instrument). That he was as much a virtuoso as his charges spoke volumes of the ensemble's prowess, bringing the festival to a spectacular close.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2017, with the headline 'A taste of Sichuan'. Print Edition | Subscribe