Musicians' chemistry elevates overstuffed fusion concert



Wu Wei (sheng), Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Joshua Tan (conductor)

Victoria Concert Hall


There is nothing new, original or unusual about combining Chinese musical instruments with those of the Western orchestral tradition. But it is not the sort of thing the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) usually does.

For this Chinese New Year concert, they were treading very deeply into territory that is usually the preserve of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra.

But the SSO had an ace up their sleeve in the person of virtuoso sheng player Wu Wei.

He displayed his extraordinary virtuosity in an opening solo - Tunes Of Jin Opera by Yan Hai Deng - in which he also revealed some remarkable footwork. Here is a player who truly dances as he plays.

The programme included several short and frivolous arrangements for Western orchestra and sheng of popular pieces of Chinese and Western repertory - notably Mao Yuan and Liu Tie Shan's A Legend From Yao and Vivaldi's La Folia variations.

These provided a nice bit of innocuous listening and were a great exhibition of Joshua Tan's sensitive accompanying, never risking his SSO players swamping the varied but essentially fragile sounds from Wu's sheng.

The two biggest pieces in the programme were both written especially for Wu.

In The Colour Yellow, dating back to 2007, Huan Ruo seemed to have thrown every conceivable gesture from Chinese music and the Western avant-garde - including the cacophonous honking of three conch shells and aspirant vocalisations from the players - into a big pot and shaken them violently for 20 minutes.

Nothing was mixed together; rather, random chunks spilled out to form a dizzying assemblage of sounds. This might all have come across as a hotchpotch of incoherent noise, had not a special chemistry between Wu and Tan helped to give it a vaguely coherent musical shape.

Fortunately, a harmless piece of rustic kitsch - in the guise of Shepherd Song by Mongolian composer Shahankun - separated the Huang work from Remembering The Old Fishing Village by Malaysian composer Chong Kee Yong. Otherwise, it would have been impossible to know where one ended and the other began.

Commissioned by the SSO for this concert, Chong over-stocked his piece with every conceivable non-traditional Western musical gesture - the honking conches and murmuring musicians were there, as well as a tuned wine glass or two.

But, after he had worked all this silliness out of his system, he at least ended the piece with something relatively tranquil.

Apparently, there were a couple of traditional Malay melodies somewhere in the mix, but whatever memories Chong had of this fishing village, they did not seem to be pleasant ones.

Light relief came at the end with Nie Er's famous Dragon Dance. Wu acted as the head, cavorting about and prompting individuals from the SSO to have a short burst of musical athleticism.

It was raucous, noisy and a lot of colourful fun.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 11, 2020, with the headline 'Musicians' chemistry elevates overstuffed fusion concert'. Subscribe