Literary classics on a high note



Singapore Chinese Orchestra

Esplanade Concert Hall

Last Saturday

Imagine trying to encompass all of William Shakespeare's plays - tragedies, comedies and histories - within a two-hour-long show.

That notion was akin to the Singapore Chinese Orchestra's contribution to this year's Huayi - Chinese Festival of Arts, a presentation in concert of the four giant classics of Chinese literature.

A comprehensive survey would have lasted more than 100 hours, but the concert comprised four highly palatable musical chapters, neatly encapsulating the essence and spirit of each masterpiece.

Well-known television personality Guo Liang was a convivial host who provided short introductions to each part, with helpful English translations projected on a giant screen behind the orchestra.

First was Dream Of The Red Chamber in a choral suite by Wang Li Ping.

This saga, about the decline of families mirrored in Qing dynasty society, had the feel of film music. Soprano Wang Qing Shuang's opera-like arias were delivered with intricacy and the requisite dramatics, with the Tanjong Katong Secondary School Choir and Alumni (Nelson Kwei, Chorus Master) providing strong vocal backing. The closing Elegy On Flowers yielded a truly poignant denouement.

More complex was Chen Ning Chi's The Battle Of Chibi, the pivotal event in Romance Of The Three Kingdoms.

Not exactly a straightforward battle showpiece, it was preceded by a lengthy introduction with a portrayal of the Yangtze River and quotes from warring generals Cao Cao, Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang sung by tenor Li Lie Guang, cast for his sagely gravitas rather than intonational accuracy.

The battle music proper was a tour de force of orchestral writing, with lots of sound, fury and smoke effects signifying plenty, while Li Bao Shun's jinghu, Zhou Ruo Yu's jing-erhu, Huang Gui Fang's sanxian and Zhong Zhi Yue's guqin had major solos.

The familiar quote of "ren sheng lu meng" (Life is like a dream, let us drink to the moon) that closed the work was now heard in its true context.

Havoc In Heaven, the celebrated escapades of Sun Wukong the Monkey God, was performed to excerpts from a 1960s animated movie by the Shanghai Animation Film Studio.

Like a Chinese version of Disney's Fantasia, Sun's mighty cudgel replaced Mickey Mouse's equally indestructible broomstick to appropriately playful music by Law Wai Lun and Lincoln Lo. For children of all ages, this episode from Journey To The West proved to be a winner.

Finally, Zhao Ji Ping's Water Margin Suite, from music written for the 1996 television series, provided the musical backdrop to the swashbuckling adventures of the epic novel's 108 heroic outlaws.

Its six movements unusually employed Western harmonies to depict China's wild frontier-lands, with Zhang Bin's solo erhu and Jin Shi Yi's suona and assorted reeds doing the honours.

Returning was the radiant soprano Wang and choir for the peaen to Heaven, Earth And Man, a glorification of humanity and the eternal elements.

The final Heroes' Song which followed closed with a free-for-all of communal laughter for both orchestra and audience, no doubt egged on by the irrepressible conductor Yeh Tsung.

Here old wisdoms prevailed. It was a way of saying: If we cannot laugh at ourselves, then what is life worth living for?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2016, with the headline 'Literary classics on a high note'. Print Edition | Subscribe