Protest song warns against apathy



Singapore International Festival of Music

Gallery, The Arts House


At first acquaintance, Singapura, the only concert segment of the Singapore International Festival of Music to feature local music, appeared to be an excuse to bring together works from Singapore, Malaysia and Japan. After sitting through its hour-long duration, the concert became greater than the sum of its parts.


Phoon Yew Tien's Separation Of The Newly Wed (1987) was a setting of Tang dynasty poet Du Fu's poem about a couple torn by the onset of war. Soprano Ashley Chua's Chinese words played equal partner to Audi Goh's oboe, Adrian Wee's erhu and Chua Yew Kok's pipa in an intensely moving work where fraught emotions were matched by the imaginative playing. The drum-like rhythms struck by the pipa provided the necessary dramatics.

The symbolism of the forceable separation of Singapore in 1965 from the newly formed Malaysia before any meaningful consummation became all the more relevant. War and conflict were the themes of this festival and, even though the late Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996) was pacifist by nature, his gentle work Rain Spell (1982) provided voices of contention.

Flute (played by Cheryl Lim) and harp (Lee Yun Chai) were among his favourite compositional instruments. Their dreamy tones, joined by the mellowness of the vibraphone (Iskandar Rashid) and clarinet (Vincent Goh), were sharply contrasted with Chenna Lu's piano, where metallic chords were augmented by the strumming of its strings. With Takemitsu, sound textures often trumped thematic cohesion.

Tan Chan Boon's Conversation For Horn & Piano (1993) was a fantasy on Taiwanese tunes in three movements. The virtuosic solo was expertly helmed by Alexander Oon, with the piano part (Lu) given the freedom of playful asides and surprising harmonies. The lightest work on the programme was followed by the densest, Malaysian composer Chong Kee Yong's Yellow Dust (1994, revised 2015) for string quartet.

Its title refers to the loess storms that bury ancient cities such as Xi'an, in turn concealing and revealing historical findings through the millennia. Its highly dissonant language, interspersed with shards and fragments of melody, carries on the legacy of string quartets by Bartok and Ligeti. These extremes were handled with total discipline and much conviction by violinists Seah Huan Yuh and Liu Yi Retallick, violist Jonathan Lee and cellist Chan Si Han.

Three choral works by Leong Yoon Pin (1931-2011), performed sympathetically by Schola Cantorum led by Albert Tay, completed the concert. Dragon Dance, one of his most performed works, is a quasi-fugal chant of the onomatopoeic "qiang-dong-qiang" of the drums, punctuated by the rolled R's in the flight of silk balls. His arrangement of the Javanese tune Bengawan Solo remains popular as always.

In between was his unpublished Nightmare (1988), with texts by Angeline Yap, which ranks as the soft-spoken composer's most controversial work. It is prefaced by the disclaimer, "To care for a country/ Is not always to be seen to praise/ To scold (and to laugh at oneself) is also to love", proclaimed by the conductor.

Although garbed in the English choral tradition, it warns against a culture of complacency, apathy and blind obeisance.

In this protest song, the patriotic Leong had prophetically predicted the result of the recent General Election.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 09, 2015, with the headline 'Protest song warns against apathy'. Print Edition | Subscribe