Concert review: Dazzling Strings by Singapore Chinese Orchestra

Chinese conductor Tang Muhai.
Chinese conductor Tang Muhai.ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI
Violinist Susan Tang.

Singapore Conference Hall

Last Saturday

This concert's title did not tell the full picture of Singapore Chinese Orchestra's (SCO) outing with well-known Chinese conductor Tang Muhai, once a protege of Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan.

Although string concertos hogged the limelight, a big impression was made by the other works, beginning with Guo Wen Jing's Dianxi Folk Tunes. Its three movements were ambitious in recounting the history and culture of the rugged tribes that inhabited Yunnan's remote mountainous regions.

Vigorously punched-out percussion beats and strident choruses of suonas rang out in the opening Ava Mountain. This was contrasted with mellower marimba and xylophone textures in the gentler but animated Jino Dance, which had a trio of dongxiao (flutes) conjure up a pastoral atmosphere in its central section.

It was all thunder and bluster in the final Sacrifices.Fire.Spirits movement, which had a similar raucous and primal energy as the close of Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring. This epic score, which merged ancient Chinese, modern Western and film music influences, was tautly held together by Tang's magisterial control, which never flagged for a single moment.

More convivial was young composer Qi Hao Di's single-movement Dazzle Of Fantasy with SCO's Zhu Lin as erhu soloist. His concertante part was stand-out virtuosic yet blended with the orchestra's string textures. The music was impressionist in style, as if crafted by a Chinese Delius, culminating with a cadenza and an ebullient flourish.

The second half began with Hongkonger Stephen Yip's Nine Actors, a winning entry in the 2001 Singapore International Competition for Chinese Orchestral Composition. The most avant-garde work on show, its expression of ceremonial and dramatic aspects of Chinese theatre was purely musical, with a narrative flowing in seven linked sections. The work's incorporation into SCO's Nanyang music canon was by virtue of its clever use of Hokkien, Teochew and Hakka themes woven into an elaborate embroidery.

The populist element of this concert was Chen Gang and He Zhanhao's Butterfly Lovers Concerto, featuring the conductor's prodigious 11-year-old daughter Susan. Her diminutive presence was compensated by a big and confidently projected sound, despite being placed right smack in the orchestra's ranks, between principal cellist Xu Zhong and harpist Ma Xiao Lan.

A distinctive advantage was to be had by her close proximity to Xu, as their duo passages were symbolic of the forbidden love between Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai.

The younger Tang's solo effort was an extremely promising one rather than the finished article, and she will surely blossom with time, like her former prodigy mother, Korean pianist Ju Hee Suh, who performed the uncredited piano part.

The gig closed with the popular encore Hua Hao Yue Yuan, the quintessential Chinese work to represent happiness and contentment.