Stunning pipa virtuosity showcased at concert of Chinese orchestral music prize winners


Singapore Conference Hall/Sat (Nov 21)

Now in its third edition, the Singapore International Competition for Chinese Orchestral Composition is without doubt the nation's most prestigious competitive platform for new music. Hosted and organised by the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, the competition was made possible by a generous personal donation by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Thirteen works by 13 composers vied for six prizes in this year's finals and five were performed at the concert and award presentation ceremony. Conducted by music director Yeh Tsung, the Singapore Chinese Orchestra proved extremely adept at learning new music, giving convincing performances of the winning pieces.

The concert opened with young Taiwanese Liu Wei-chih's The Calling From The Distant Hills, which was awarded the second prize. Zhao Jian Hua's solo erhu ushered in a highly atmospheric piece that relied on deft use of instrumental colour to create a mysterious haze from which various voices emerged in the tradition of Hakka folk-singing. Among these were a chorus of suonas, solo cello and guanzi before reaching a serene conclusion.

Two Singaporean composers took to heart the Nanyang idiom, which is central to the competition's ethos. Wong Kah Chun's Krakatoa, which won the Singaporean Composer Award, was originally scored for wind orchestra. His Chinese instrumental version was evocative of Javanese tradition with dizis simulating the suling (flute) and a flight of birds just before the volcano's famous eruption. From the ensuing violence emerged a new creation, Anak Krakatoa, represented by a more Western-styled idiom that brought to mind Richard Strauss' avatar of the Superman in Also Sprach Zarathustra.

Chew Jun An's Bale Bengong, winner of the Young Singaporean Composer Award, was a more static work that dealt with the generation of ideas and fantasies. Its title refers to the Balinese "pavilion for day-dreaming", where a complex counterpoint became a hotbed for themes and motifs to arise, all accomplished while seemingly fomenting in an arak-induced stupor.

The third prize was named for Chinese composer Kong Zhixuan's Go Across The Rainforests,which conjured a tropical and Oriental version of Eden with all members of the dizi family engaged, before the use of Javanese scales and a graceful Indonesian dance indicated the work's specific geography. The work had a loud end that included a busily chromatic fugue for good measure.

Hong Kong-born Gordon Fung Dic-lun's Arise, Lion Of Glory! was awarded the first prize and $15,000 by an international jury comprising well-known Asian composers, conductors and academics. Its title had nothing to do with Singapore's jubilee but rather a Cantonese version of the festive lion dance. Unlike the other entrants, it was a concertante work, one which showcased SCO pipa principal Yu Jia in a stunning virtuoso role.

The pipa had both percussive and lyrical parts which underlined the rituals behind the lion dance, before breaking out in an all-out assault with drums and cymbals leading, familiar from Chinese New Year celebrations. However raucous the procession, the pipa still had the last word, finally accompanied by the gentle tinkling of Tibetan prayer bowls.

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