High jinks and nostalgia to usher in new year

REVIEW / CONCERT

RHAPSODIES OF SPRING 2019

Singapore Chinese Orchestra

Singapore Conference Hall

Last Saturday

Like Singapore Symphony Orchestra's annual Christmas Concerts, Singapore Chinese Orchestra's Chinese New Year concerts, titled Rhapsodies Of Spring, are must-attend events for those who enjoy seasonal favourites delivered with healthy doses of light-heartedness.

Conducted by Yeh Tsung, this year's offerings were high on humour and nostalgia. The concert opened with Li Huan Zhi's familiar Spring Festival Overture, an old-fashioned rouser which sounded oh-so traditional before SCO composer-on-residence Law Wai Lun's Celebrating New Year.

There was a deliberate schlockiness to this medley which reeked of gaudy Geylang a-go-go bars of the 1960s. More power to a smart parody of styles which saw Cai Shen Dao (God Of Fortune Arrives) and Ying Chun Hua (Spring Blossoms) dressed up as a rumba and cha cha respectively. And one has not really lived without experiencing that ear-worm Gong Xi Gong Xi taking the form of a ridiculously camp tango.

What truly distinguished the evening were four world premieres of Chinese evergreens re-orchestrated as popular culture-influenced concertante works by four local composers.

Simon Kong's Flight Of Bossa Nova saw Chang Le and Meng Jie in a duel of suonas updating the woodwind classic Bai Niao Chao Feng (Hundreds Of Birds Paying Respect To The Phoenix).

There were many jazzy turns to erhu classic Erquan Yingyue (Moon's Reflection On Erquan) in Phang Kok Jun's Erquan In Swing. Tan Man Man's hip-gyrating solo was the perfect foil to Ling Hock Siang's reliving of the legendary blind erhu exponent Abing's soulful plaint.

In Wang Chenwei's Interstellar Ambush, the pipa showpiece Shi Mian Mai Fu (Ambush From All Sides) took on the ominous strides of Darth Vader's Imperial March. The always spectacular Yu Jia in a multi-sequinned gown did the honours, but something was lost by not being dressed like a stormtrooper.

For Hard Rock Fight, Eric Watson pitted two percussionists, Xu Fan on Chinese drums (dagu and paigu) against Ngoh Keng Seng on timpanis, in a pitched battle where Long Hu Dou (Dragon Tiger Feud) was transformed into a rock fantasy.

Art or kitsch? The side-splitting in-jokes in these four new works meant they were not to be taken too seriously.

After the first half's high jinks, the second half was more retrospective and sedate. Heady Shanghai of the 1930s was relived with Fang Qiong in a selection of songs popularised by singer-actress Zhou Xuan in Law's The Wandering Songstress Symphonic Suite.

She certainly had the full measure of these numbers, which included Song Of Four Seasons, Waiting For A Beloved, May Breezes and Soaring Phoenix.

Conductor Yeh was in his element too, reciting poetry in both Mandarin and antique Shanghainese, performing dance steps and even downing a glass of red wine.

Had the audience been similarly stimulated, there would have been a more raucous response to Sim Boon Yew's Spring Suite 2019, which closed the concert with the customary glad tidings of gong xi, gong xi.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 21, 2019, with the headline 'High jinks and nostalgia to usher in new year'. Print Edition | Subscribe