Concert review: Spellbinding voyage by The Philharmonic Winds

The Philharmonic Winds performing at the Esplanade Concert Hall.
The Philharmonic Winds performing at the Esplanade Concert Hall.PHOTO: CLIVE CHOO

For The Philharmonic Winds' 15th anniversary gala concert at the Esplanade Concert Hall on Sunday, Singapore's busiest wind orchestra made its mark with the world premiere of Spanish composer-conductor Luis Serrano Alarcon's Marco Polo: The Trilogy. This is a symphonic masterpiece of programme music in three parts, which like the Venetian explorer-adventurer that inspired it, bridged the divide between the West and the East.

Given the massive task at hand, each part was conducted by a different conductor, personalities who have been closely associated with the orchestra over the years. Its music director Leonard Tan directed the opening The Silk Road, which was also the most exotic. The narrative opened loudly and dissonantly in Genoa of 1298, where Polo was imprisoned and had related his travels to amanuensis (literary assistant) Rusticello.

Alarcon does not tarry, and the journey through Asia Minor and Central Asia introduced instruments such as the flute-like shvi, oboe-like duduk and Irfan Rais in the tar, a Middle-Eastern strummed lute. A fast sinuous Armenian dance and a merchant's plaint soon gave way to the drugged spell of the "hashashins", the world's first assassins (who were high on hashish), with harmonics created by the circular stroking of Tibetan prayer bowls.

A stampede of Mongolian cavalry by percussion in crescendo heralded a greeting by the gourd-like blown hulusi as Polo arrived at the Yellow River, and ushered into ancient Cambaluc (Beijing today) amidst the sound of fireworks. He and his party were supposedly the first Westerners to enter China, and The Cathay Years, the central part of the trilogy conducted by principal guest conductor Timothy Reynish, was arguably the most colourful.

Here, six members of Ding Yi Music Company took centrestage, with exquisite solos from Lim Kwuan Boon's erhu and Tan Qing Lun's dizis, backed by sheng and three suonas. The Vocal Associates Festival Chorus provided a further dimension of sound with its wordless voices. The court of Kublai Khan, all pomp and ceremony, was ample reason for a giddying surfeit of chinoiserie that would have pleased the likes of Puccini and Busoni.

The tingling bells of Mien (Myanmar today) and evocation of New Year festivities with the orchestra in splashy full throttle provided a rowdy end for the concert's first half. Each part of the trilogy played for half an hour, and the finale The Book Of India, conducted by Alarcon himself, proved to be the most spiritual third of the show.

Han Lei's long and elaborate guanzi solo bade Polo farewell, and after a torrential monsoon which caused Polo who was escorting Princess Cocochin to seek refuge in Sumatra, he arrived in Ceylon, an ancient seat of Buddhism. Flute and oboe solos, followed by chanting from male voices of the Chorus at the Second Circle filled the air as he scaled the sacred Adam's Peak. The Indian segment comprised a raga wonderfully performed by Krsna Tan (sitar), Govin Tan (tabla) and Irfan Rais (tampura), which was almost improvisatory in its utter spontaniety, with its themes echoed by the orchestra.

All too soon, Polo was back in Venice with the bells of San Marco pealing and a return to his cell in Genoa, coming a full circle after over 90 minutes of music. His message, "I did not tell half of what I saw", summed up his escapades as the epic closed on a reassuring F major chord.

Similarly this short review scarcely does justice to the unstinting efforts of the players of The Philharmonic Winds who gave a most vivid portrayal of story-telling in music, lacking neither in passion nor detail in making the massive work both coherent and relevant. This was one wind concert that will stick in the mind for a long time to come.