Yellow River legends live on


Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Singapore Conference Hall/ Last Saturday

The Yellow River Piano Concerto and Yellow River Cantata, like the geographical Huang He, are symbols of Chinese history and national sorrow.

The composer of the Yellow River Cantata, Macau-born Xian Xinghai (1905-1945), occupies a position in Chinese music not unlike that of Shostakovich or Prokofiev in modern Russian music. In commemorating his 110th birth anniversary, Singaporeans are reminded that he spent 10 years of his youth here and was an alumnus of Yangzhen (Yeung Ching) School. He played in the school band and his musical talent was honed here before he returned to China.

Two orchestral works opened the Xian Xinghai tribute by the Singapore Chinese Orchestra conducted by Yeh Tsung.

Phoon Yew Tien's rousing orchestration of Xian's Behind Enemy Lines incorporated its martial strains with the more optimistic Er Yue Li Lai (Second Lunar Month), both clothed in patriotic fervour. Law Wai Lun's A Decade Of Xing Hai In The Lion City was a brief reminiscence of Xian's melodies with the old Yangzhen School song accompanied by annotated archival photos.

The first half concluded with the Yellow River Concerto, composed in 1969 by a committee of six members of Beijing's Central Philharmonic Society by collating the most memorable melodies from Xian's Yellow River Cantata and recast into four movements. A shamelessly virtuosic vehicle, it brought together various technical devices from Romantic piano concertos by Liszt, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and Grieg into one orgiastic whole.

Young Chinese pianist Sun Yingdi, winner of the 2005 Liszt International Piano Competition, spared no effort in thundering out its outsized cadenzas, cascading arpeggios and stampeding octaves.

But there were tender moments too, with Lim Sin Yeo's bangdi evocatively opening the third movement, Wrath Of The Yellow River, and Sun's excellent repeated note technique in simulating a pipa.

So was this a nationalistic work or a Communist one? The inclusion of The East Is Red and the Internationale at the finale's apotheosis strongly points to the latter.

Xian's eponymous cantata, composed within six days in 1939 during the Sino-Japanese war, occupied the concert's second half.

By now, many of its melodies would have been familiar, but despite its heroic tones, it is a more nuanced work than the concerto.

Crosstalk exponent Huang Jiaqiang was the narrator and his opening gambit, "Have you been to the Yellow River?" set the tone.

A combined choir formed by the Shanghai Opera House Chorus and Nanyang Khek Community Guild Choir delivered a message of struggle and ultimate victory against all invaders.

Baritone Tao Kuo and soprano Liu Fei sang one movement each, but it was the fifth movement's animated dialogue between Everymen Zhang and Wang, sung by tenors Xu Xiao Ming and Yu Hao Lei from the choir, that contributed a folk-like charm to the proceedings.

The orchestra provided excellent support through its eight movements, the original context of the overplayed concerto being laid bare.

Love or loathe them, the legends of the Yellow River will live on as long as the Chinese walk this planet.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2015, with the headline 'Yellow River legends live on'. Print Edition | Subscribe