Chinese works on local terms

REVIEW / CONCERT

DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER & RED CLIFF

Singapore Chinese Orchestra

Singapore Conference Hall

Last Friday


The Singapore Chinese Orchestra's opening concert of the 2018-2019 season began with the national anthem Majulah Singapura, led by music director Yeh Tsung.

That patriotic gesture indicated although the works performed were based on Chinese literary classics, the production was to be on Singaporean terms.

That this orchestra is able to hold its own, especially when performing concerts in China, is beyond doubt.

This was evident in Wang Li Ping's Dream Of The Red Chamber Suite, based on his music written for the iconic 1987 television serial Hong Lou Meng.

That, in turn, was adapted from the 18th-century epic by Cao Xueqin, about the trials, tribulations and decline of four families in feudal China.

Twelve of the 15 movements in Wang's suite were performed.

The pathos of impending tragedy was captured in the Overture, with the offstage voice of Chinese soprano Wu Bixia wafting in mysteriously.

Although diminutive in physical stature, she made her outsized vocal presence felt in seven movements, portraying the long-suffering women characters of the saga.

Poem Of The Red Bean, Handkerchief Melody, Longing In Vain, Tragic Story Of Xiang Ling and Elegy On Flowers were among these beautiful but mostly tragic plaints. About eternal longing and yearning, there was a certain degree of sameness, padding up the suite to nearly an hour.

For variety, there were spirited contributions from the 40-strong Vocal Associates Festival Choruses (Khor Ai Ming, chorus mistress), very fine string playing from the huqins in Love Between Baoyu And Daiyu and raucous percussion in Lantern Festival.

More compact was Chen Ning-chi's 2003 symphonic poem Chibi (The Battle Of Red Cliff), based on a tumultuous episode from The Romance Of Three Kingdoms.

Channel 8 host Jeffrey Low was a stirring narrator and vocal heroics came from Singaporean tenor Jonathan Charles Tay.

The musical idiom was decidedly more modern and the vivid orchestration flowed inexorably through four linked movements.

The famous quote Ren Sheng Ru Meng (Life Is But A Dream) opened and closed this quintessential battle piece, emphasising the impermanence of being, even if it involved Chinese legends like Cao Cao, Zhu Geliang and Zhou Yu.

In the second movement Masks, a delicate gaohu duet by Li Baoshun and Zhou Ruoyu stood out among the bluster.

Further solos by Han Lei's guanzi and Jin Shiyi's suona mouthpiece set the stage for the furious final battle, with the drama quotient raised by percussion, suona chorus, cannon shots, offstage horns and red smoke. A sensurround effect was clearly felt from the seats, a Chinese riposte to Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, Beethoven's Wellington's Victory and Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky, just to name a few battle potboilers.

Closing quietly with a reprise of Tay's lament about life, poignantly accompanied by Xu Zhong's cello, the subtle and sober end made the work all the more memorable.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 16, 2018, with the headline 'Chinese works on local terms'. Print Edition | Subscribe