Fusion work and beautiful sounds let down by technical issues

The Asian Cultural Symphony Orchestra, formed in 2016, comprises largely of instruments found in any Western symphony orchestra.
The Asian Cultural Symphony Orchestra, formed in 2016, comprises largely of instruments found in any Western symphony orchestra.PHOTO: FACEBOOK/ASIAN CULTURAL SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

REVIEW / CONCERT

ORIENTAL WINDS

Asian Cultural Symphony Orchestra/Adrian Chiang & Dedric Wong Deli (conductors)

School of the Arts Concert Hall/ Last Saturday

The Asian Cultural Symphony Orchestra, formed in 2016, comprises largely of instruments found in any Western symphony orchestra.

What makes it different is its focus on Singapore composers and the highlighting of Asian instruments as soloists. In last Saturday's concert, the featured soloists were a range of ethnic flutes.

Primitive flutes are among the earliest known musical instruments and almost all cultures have their own version of it.

Technically, the different flutes vary only in the material from which they are made and whether they are blown end on or from the side. Unfortunately, this concert demonstrated a more practical issue.

Ethnic flutes, especially those made of bamboo, stand no chance of projecting their sound above a hefty Western orchestra. Careful amplification is needed. Unfortunately, this was not the case here. With an unrealistically forceful sound and a ghastly added echo, subtle and delicate ethnic flutes became grotesque self-parodies.

Perhaps inevitably, the most musically successful performance was Hisatada Otaka's Flute Concerto given by Cheryl Lim on a Western metal flute. No amplification was needed here and Lim's delightful playing, coupled with Adrian Chiang's discreet direction, brought a welcome touch of realism. Sadly though, the most charitable word to describe Otaka's music is innocuous.

Potentially, the most attractive music of the evening was Wang Chenwei's Winds Of Affinity. This was a beautifully crafted duet for dizi (played by Bian Tong) and flute (Yuki Nagashima).

Unfortunately, an errant microphone relaying backstage conversations into the auditorium proved too much of a distraction.

There were plenty of beautiful sounds to savour in a specially commissioned work from Singaporean composer Sulwyn Lok.

He managed to engage the audience in the magical opening of his Oriental Winds for bansuri (Raghavendran Rajasekaran), xiao (Teoh Kok Chuan) and suling (Brian Lim).

But just as concertgoers were all getting to enjoy themselves oohing and aahing to Lok's score, a sustained barrage from a battery of drums broke in and the magic of the opening was lost, never to return. This felt more like a work-in-progress than a finished composition, but with uninhibited and copious cuts and rewrites, this has the makings of an effective concert work.

Dedric Wong Deli had his work cut out managing the preposterously overwritten orchestral accompaniment to the humble dizi in Everlasting Sorrow, a collaborative Chinese composition dating from the last century. Fortunately, the obtrusive amplification did reveal what a fine dizi virtuoso Ng Hsien Han is.

Singapore's own Eric Watson is a master of fusion works and The Migration Of Birds lined up five ethnic instruments - dizi (Ong Guan Xian), bansuri (Rajasekaran), shakuhachi (Chua Keng Chiu), suling (Lim) and flute (Alvin Chan).

Each player was adorned in appropriate cultural dress. While obtrusive amplification again obscured the subtle nuances of their playing, it did not obscure the fact that given careful handling, fusion music can be successful.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2018, with the headline 'Fusion work and beautiful sounds let down by technical issues'. Print Edition | Subscribe