Concert review: Singapore Chinese Orchestra’s Cross-Cultural Extravaganza shows off diverse music styles

Music Director Yeh Tsung.
Singer Taufik Batisah.

Singapore Conference Hall

Last Saturday

For the Singapore Chinese Orchestra's first concert tour to Kuala Lumpur, it prepared a multi-cultural programme that reflected the diversity of musical styles that thrives in Singapore and Malaysia. Every ethnic culture was represented and there was an effort to bridge seemingly disparate genres in the five works performed.

Conducted by the visionary Music Director Yeh Tsung, the concert opened with an appetiser of Rambutan, the 2nd movement of Sabah composer Simon Kong's suite Izpirazione II. Combining Chinese and Malay influences, the short scherzo-like piece which highlighted the piquancy of flutes and woodwinds has become almost a marker of the Nanyang musical tradition.

Long-time Singapore resident Eric Watson's Dialogue brought Jatinder Singh Bedi's tabla set in headlong conversation with Chinese instruments. Although the tabla is not a melodic instrument, its varying rhythmic beats served as catalyst for this vibrant work of international flavour. The orchestra worked around the Punjabi virtuoso, sometimes imitating his pulse and other times serving as the counter-voice. There were solos for bangdi and suona, and the piece culminated with an elaborate cadenza where Bedi had the field to himself.

Even more esoteric was the world premiere of Yii Kah Hoe's The Silly Little Girl & The Funny Old Tree, based on a short play by the late Kuo Pao Kun. Central to this work was a wayang kulit (shadow puppet theatre) show featuring Kelantanese tok dalang Eyo Hock Seng and his troupe Kumpulan Sri Campuran. Eyo multi-tasked as master puppeteer, storyteller and singer in a poignant story about uprooting of cultures and lost traditions.

He is himself the stalwart of an age-old tradition that risks dying out with modernisation and relentless erosion by new popular cultures. His resonant voice in a vernacular Malay dialect local to the northern state stole the show, amid Yii's robust and earthy music that headily juxtaposed the Chinese suona with its Malay counterpart, the serunai.

Kelly Tang's Montage has become the most played Singaporean piano concerto of all time, thanks to SCO's advocacy and its dedicatee, jazz legend Jeremy Monteiro. Its three movements contain more jazz than Gershwin's Concerto In F and Rhapsody In Blue combined. Why the piano's lid was kept only on half-stick while being amplified was probably because of balance, but this pair of ears would have preferred even greater presence for the solo part in the outer movements with the lid completely off.

Nevertheless, Monteiro was in his element providing the expositional thrust and improvising. The erhu solo by Zhao Jian Hua in the slow movement's romance was a thing of beauty, matched by the irrepressible guanzi solo from Han Lei in the riotous Caribbean-rhythmed finale. Jazz drummer Tama Goh and bassist Lee Khiang made up the combo in yet another fun-filled outing.

The concert closed with a touch of glamour, when the first Singapore Idol Taufik Batisah emerged to sing in Watson's nostalgic Songs Of P.Ramlee medley. His soulful crooning of Getaran Jiwa (Vibrations Of The Soul), Senjakala (Twilight) and Bila Mama Pakai Celana (When Mama Wears Trousers) rolled back the years, and the final number dressed up with an infectious rumba beat brought down the house.

As an encore, Singh's tabla and Monteiro's piano joined in the fray for an uproarious reprise of the last song.

Kuala Lumpur's Dewan Filharmonic Petronas is in for rolling good times.