Concert review: Yong Siew Toh ensemble shows what Singapore could be like in 2065


Yong Siew Toh Conservatory New Music Ensemble

Esplanade Recital Studio/Sunday

The mere notion of new music usually strikes fear in the minds of potential concert-goers, but they can be assured that atonality and serialism - their usual bete noir - form only a narrow segment of what is a potentially limitless field of expression. This concert by the Conservatory New Music Ensemble, led by Belgium-born but locally residing composer-conductor Robert Casteels, showed that new music could be both listenable and funny.

Filipino composer Ramon Pagayon Santos' Galluda-Pallotgot (2002) had taken several pages from American minimalists in his work inspired by the beads, baubles and jewellery of Mindanao highlanders. Its unusual scoring including mandolin, guitar, harp, piano and percussion (including singing bowls) suggested he was trying to achieve a sound that evoked tribal cultures and ancient customs.

Shimmering and aurally brilliant, its attempt at reliving the primal also meant paying tribute - knowingly or unwittingly - to that inevitable classic of early barbarism, Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring.

Young Taiwanese Lu Wei-Ping's Nicotine (2014) was a shorter and cogent work dedicated to "those who cannot live without smoking". Scored for just six players, it was the flute and trombone that played chief protagonists in its two contrasting parts. The first part portrayed irritability and agitation, which turned sinuous and dreamy in the second to close. Such is the narcotic's ability to induce a short-lived nirvana, hence its potent drawing power.

American Joseph Schwantner's Music Of Amber (1980) was the oldest piece, one which exploited its six instrumental parts to the full. An impressionist sound world of Debussy and Messiaen was conjured in its first movement Wind, Willow, Whisper, while the second movement Sanctuary explored wider dynamics by upping its volume and tempo, including a segment for solo drumming before ending in quiet calm.

The work that tickled most palates was Casteels' own Travelogue (2014), which was performed without conductor. Baritone Keane Ong narrated the part of a Singaporean who resides on Mars but returns for a day in 2065, and finds that the more things change, much more remains the same. It was a satirical look at a dystopian future when present policies are carried to their logical conclusions.

Singlish expressions (bo chup), colloquialisms (blur like sotong), catchphrases (no U-turn) and long-defunct cartographical landmarks (Gemmil's Hill) littered the score at every conceivable opportunity, punctuated by sopranos Melodie Tan and Rachel Lim, both of whom served like a Greek chorus with their recitation of Tourism Board slogans and various performance indices. For the most part, the singers were intelligible until the final tutti, when the punchlines were all but submerged amid the instrumental throng.

A libretto would have been helpful, and a repeat performance is welcome, if anything to laugh at ourselves come SG50 or SG100. As it is, we just do not laugh enough.

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