Concert review: An Evening with the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra - MoonFest 2014

Yan Hui Chang is the artistic director and principal conductor of the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra. -- PHOTO: SCO
Yan Hui Chang is the artistic director and principal conductor of the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra. -- PHOTO: SCO

Esplanade Concert Hall

Last Saturday

There are only a few full-sized professional Chinese orchestras in existence, and each has its own distinctive features. The Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, making its first appearance here in 17 years, can truly be considered distinctive. Led by its Singaporean Principal Conductor, Cultural Medallion recipient Yan Huichang in 2001, it made a big impact at this year's Mid Autumn festivities at the Esplanade.

One would be struck by its mostly youthful-looking players, attired in sleek dark grey one-piece gowns, and array of eco-friendly huqins, cellos and basses. Made from biodegradable materials, these instruments eschewed the traditional python-skin trimmings yet did not compromise on timbre and sound quality.

Their velvety, homogeneous sound was heard to stirring effect in the ancient tune As The Moon Rises arranged by Peng Xiuwen, and the mysterious and hushed textures in The Grazing Scene from Law Wing-Fai's Tang Capriccio. Suppleness and subtlety were in plenteous supply, but the range of nuances expressed in this wonderfully varied programme also impressed.

Percussion and a chorus of suonas (the closest thing to brass) certainly made their presence felt in The Grand Victory from Shanxi, which opened the concert. The latter, trumpeting impossibly long-held notes at its ending, was greeted with much glee. There was also much prowess in individual solos, like Singaporean Choo Boon-Chong's evocatively tipsy bangdi flourish in Law's Drunken Monk's Note, inspired by Tang dynasty calligraphy.

Liu Tianhua's A Beautiful Night and the Cantonese number In Celebration Of The Good Times provided a host of contrasts, nocturnal serenity followed by celebratory revelry. In Zhao Jiping's Follow The Pagoda Tree To Trace The Roots Of Our Ancestors, elegiac huqins (one cannot get enough of these) alternated with a swifter and more percussive beat that underlined the work's date with nostalgia.

The concertante works were heartily received, none more than sanxian soloist Zhao Taisheng's tour de force of spoken and sung narration in Sui Lijun's Song Of The Black Earth. Like the proverbial wandering minstrel, he truly captured the lore of the land with his plaints, capped by a frenzied improvised cadenza on the sanxian that reminded one of Elvis on his guitar in his prime.

Conducted Yan then trained the audience in the art of the hand drum for the closing work, Cheng Dazhao's Yellow River Capriccio. The work went through its obligatory tumultuous episodes that are sine qua non for "China's Sorrow", featured some fine folk singing from orchestral members Mao Qinghua and Ren Zhaoliang, before the mass participatory drumming that raised a terrific din to close.

Conductor Yan mused on his happiness about returning to Singapore, before launching into three familiar encores, Colourful Clouds Chasing The Moon, Horse Racing and the theme from the martial arts serial Legend Of The Condor Heroes.

On this showing, the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra's much-vaunted reputation is well-deserved.

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