Concert Review: The Pipa Quartet's confused concert

The Pipa Quartet, formed in 2013, comprising (from left) Samuel Wong Shengmiao, Ivan Chng Wei Jie, Goh Xue Qi and Jeremy Wong Xin Rui. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
The Pipa Quartet, formed in 2013, comprising (from left) Samuel Wong Shengmiao, Ivan Chng Wei Jie, Goh Xue Qi and Jeremy Wong Xin Rui. -- PHOTO: ST FILE

Despite advances in modern science and technology, the development of traditional musical instruments has largely stagnated in the past few decades.

At first glance, the Pipa Quartet's new conception of the electro-acoustic Pipa may seem ground-breaking, but is implanting a pick-up to the instrument and adding electronic manipulation to its sound really innovative?

Helmed by multi-award-winning Pipa virtuoso Samuel Wong, the ensemble consists of Jeremy Wong, Goh Xueqi and Ivan Chng. At their concert on Friday at the School of the Arts' concert hall, they explained the need to push the boundaries of the instrument, which allowed them to venture into genres of music the instrument would otherwise not have been able to play.

Perhaps they could look no further than at our very own Singapore Chinese Orchestra and its successful attempts at jazz and popular music.

The music presented was largely similar in formula: A short catchy tune repeated over an accompanying rhythm track, not unlike music you would hear at a nightspot with an unadventurous DJ.

It all made for a rather confused concert.

The opening Robot Jive by Mark John Hariman was both hypnotic and easy on the ears, but one would have enjoyed it more with flashing lights and a crowd dancing instead of a quiet audience seated in a concert hall.

Jeremy Wong's Antecedent saw Ivan Chng successfully mimicking a bass guitarist, but for the most part, it was nearly impossible to tell the performers apart from each other.

The similarity of timbre among the four identical instruments was compounded by unncessary amplification, which did nothing to improve their tone.

In Send Me a Rose, China Backstage, and Ambush From Ten Sides, all written or arranged by Wong, there was a curious absence of the notion of a quartet. What's the purpose of having four performers if they are going to be doubling each other most of the time?

The most successful works on the programme saw each instrument allocated a clearly defined role in the score.

Chow Jun Yi's Whispering Winds and Into The Light were masterful polyphony of colours, while Jordan Wei made the pipa sound totally at home as a Latin instrument in Wanderlust.

Aya Sekine's Life, Everyday! sounded like a comical version of a videogame theme from the 1980s, though instead of exploiting the characteristics of the instrument, the added electronic distortion made them sound like a cross between a steelpan drum and an out-of-tune vibraphone.

Ending the concert with two encores, a medley of Mandarin pop songs by the likes of Stefanie Sun and JJ Lin, and Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight Of The Bumblebee, it was a reflection of the night's proceedings.

The medley showed what such an ensemble is suited for, and the latter demonstrated that amplified accoustic instruments are highly unnecessary.

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