Singapore Chinese Orchestra's European tour de force

Almost 19 years ago, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra made its Berlin debut at the historic Konzerthaus Gendarmenmarkt.

This year was the Singapore Chinese Orchestra's (SCO) turn, conducted by Yeh Tsung, in the first concert of its four-city European tour. Its programme included four works representing the unique sound world that is Chinese and Nanyang music.

Nanyang music was a genre promulgated by the SCO and music director Yeh, conceived to encompass specific subjects, flavours and idioms of South-east Asia.

Opening the concert was the symphonic poem Krakatoa by Wong Kah Chun, presently the chief conductor of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra. Originally written for wind band, its sound textures translated very well on Chinese instruments.

Dizis and percussion playing a modal tune conjured the tranquil mood of Javanese slumber before the violence of volcanic eruption, generating abrupt and startling contrasts. Suonas strategically placed high up at the back of the circle also created the effect of stereophony, contributing to the work's raw and tumultuous impact.

Winner of the 2015 Singapore International Competition for Chinese Orchestral Composition, Hong Kong composer Gordon Fung Dic-Lun's Arise, You Lion Of Glory provided another vista into Nanyang music. Its subject was the life cycle of the lion dance of local Chinese celebrations.

Splendidly coiffed SCO pipa principal Yu Jia was at her extroverted best, portraying the lion's stirring, passionate moves aided and abetted by rhythmic percussion, all the way to its eventual demise. The quiet and spiritual close of the work was accompanied by tinkling sounds of Tibetan prayer bowls.



    Berlin Konzerthaus Gendarmenmarkt

    Last Saturday

More familiar was Chen Gang and He Zhanhao's Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto, undoubtedly China's greatest compositional export.

London-based Singaporean violinist Kam Ning wrung out all the pathos possible from the rhapsodic tale of Liang Zhu, the Chinese version of Romeo And Juliet.

Her duet with cellist Xu Zhong provided tender moments which tugged at the heartstrings.

The encore was Fritz Kreisler's Tambourin Chinois, typical Viennese chinoiserie but made to sound totally charming.

The fourth major work was Yellow Earth, an early work by Tan Dun, arguably the most famous living Chinese composer today. Its four movements depicted the parched, rugged landscapes and raucous celebrations of the Chinese outback. Exploiting the full range of instrumental capabilities, the orchestra provided a tour de force of virtuosic and cohesive playing.

As if to further showcase the orchestra's wide-ranging versatility, it also took on the music of J.S. Bach. The famous Air On G String sounded quaintly idiomatic with yangqin replacing the harpsichord, and the melody tenderly carried on sheng, gaohu and dizi.

Chatty and engaging, Yeh clearly had the audience eating from his hands. Two encores of Dvorak's Slavonic Dance In G Minor (Op. 46 No. 8) and the Gavotte from Bach's Suite No. 3 had listeners in raptures and on their feet.

Judging from the response, this concert was both a musical and cross-cultural triumph. SCO continues on its tour with further concerts in Prague, Imola (Italy) and Athens.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 02, 2019, with the headline 'Singapore Chinese Orchestra's European tour de force'. Subscribe