Singapore Arts Festival Blog

Postmodern Chinese Music?
June 7, 2011, 1:00 am
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MUSIC REVIEW: Soul Capture by T’ang Quartet and Hu Xiao-Ou (31 May and 1 June)

Upon entering the SOTA Concert Hall, one encounters a landscape of quasi-Savannah stage design with withered branches and wooden logs. Imminently, the musicians dressed in hippie outback gear play a contemporary rendition of ethnic Chinese folk songs remixed in an avant-garde style. Sporadic screen images interrupt the cacophony of extreme high glissandos and repetitious spiccato. This is the music by Hu Xiao-Ou, who has divided the work into six movements, depicting various imageries of ancient China, with titles like ‘A Drinking Song of Sacrifice’ and ‘Birds, Masks and Qing’.

Within an obvious cellular structure, one hears an array of electronic and percussive timbres, with the latter performed with keen gungho by Chek, the second violinist and Lionel, the violist. Yet, the pre-emptive onset of the climax at the end of the second movement appears as a short-circuit against the several variations of ancient Chinese tunes to come in the later movements. Perhaps the use of a single six-note motif to unite all six movements could be deemed as economical, but this also brought musical interest to an auricular abyss. The random interjections of mountain songs and women counting or chanting in the Sichuan dialect more than hindered the teleological path of the music.

Unless one finds this Singapore Arts Festival commission to be postmodern given its juxtaposition of the East and the West, the Classical feel of sturm und drang and the utilisation of homophony and counterpoint, reminiscent of Baroque techniques, reveal the deeply-rooted Western training of the Chinese composer. What convinced me most (more so on the first evening than the second) was the cellist’s solo showcase in the fourth movement, entitled ‘Rotating Totem’. Leslie’s command of the instrument impressed upon the audiences with his extremely high shrills as well as the uber-frantic strums like the performative gait of a Chinese pipa. Otherwise, I must say that I found the yellow lights shining across the entire stage floor as the only uncanny moment of this cultural-historical revival.

In an earlier interview with the composer and performers, the former revealed that the artefacts at Jin Sha, Chengdu, Sichuan ‘belong to nobody’ and thus have allowed for vast inspirations to recreate an aesthetic experience very much similar to that of soul capturing. Thereafter, Hu Xiao-Ou’s decisions to use Sichuan cymbals (as opposed to Beijing cymbals) as well as on-location recordings were strongly influenced by the cultural emplacement of his music. The Singaporeans’ visit to the archaeological site itself instigated awe and awakening of what it meant to be Chinese; as much as Jin Sha being mysterious and abstract, the world premieres were delivered with distinctive imagination amidst a reservoir of extended techniques and choreographic dexterity. Like what Yuying, the first violinist, had mentioned, this project is an attempt at giving meaning to a part of history which was ‘rediscovered but not understood’. Whether the quartet has succeeded, this reviewer remained ambivalent.

Jun Zubillaga-Pow


That Band from a Distance…

MUSIC REVIEW: Academy of Ancient Music and Sumi Jo (16 and 17 May)

I should begin by introducing newcomers to Baroque music that there are several schools of thought on performance practice mostly hovering around the use of instruments and instrumental techniques such as the application of vibrato, rhythmic alterations and tuning. Discussions over these topics can be polemic and there remains no consensus, but all agree that a historically-informed performance is most conducive to the intention of the composer.

The Academy of Ancient Music presented two contrasting programme on their last leg of the Asian tour, covering South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. The band is a top-notched ensemble of European musicians directed by the very knowledgeable Richard Egarr, who gave a pre-concert talk and answered tough questions at the post-concert dialogues so brilliantly.  For their debut in Singapore at the Singapore Arts Festival, they were honoured to accompany the South Korean diva soprano Sumi Jo in operatic arias by Vivaldi, Handel and Purcell.

For their first evening in Singapore, the players displayed a well-balanced camaraderie with meticulously-sculpted melodic lines sitting atop the throttle of period instruments forming the basso continuo. However, this energy appeared less reciprocal of the director’s beck-and-call. It could very well be the repetitious performance of the same pieces that resulted in, say, the lack of sparkle from the soloists in Albinoni’s double oboe concerto.

The addition of Sumi Jo did not help the situation as her bellismo singing style stood in contrast to the asceticism of Baroque performance practice. Depending on your musical taste, one could witness the mismatch of the otherwise superb musicians. Sumi Jo’s interpretation and diction were immaculate, yet what might have caused the falter of a certain brilliance could be the necessity to sing at a baroque pitch (A=415). The agility of her coloratura upper registers was not given the opportunity to dazzle this evening as it should have been in the case of Purcell’s Music for a While.

As a result, the ensemble’s switch from terraced to tapered dynamic devices betrayed their alliance with period instructions and smaller performance spaces, such as the Wigmore Hall. Their presentation on the second evening was much more persuasive to this reviewer. Perhaps it was an informed familiarity with the Esplanade Concert Hall and certain twitching of its acoustics, that there was renewed confidence from the Cambridge-based ensemble. Maestro Egarr stood in as MC for the entire evening sharing with the audience interesting anecdotes and trivia such as the personification of the lead violinist as Corelli and the double bassist as ‘his boyfriend’.

The star on the Vesak Day evening must be the soloist Ursula Leveaux in Vivaldi’s Bassoon Concerto. Her delicate scalic pecks brought out the dark subdued tone of her period replica. Her delivery was of sincere intent and achieved the power of the Baroque sublime. If there were any flaws for the band, it would have been logistical: one being the absence of the baroque flute, whose rounder timbre would have been preferred for the works of Bach and Handel. We await the return of this internationally-acclaimed ensemble… and their flautist please.    

Jun Zubillaga-Pow

Choral, Coral, Chora…
May 30, 2011, 7:11 am
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Choral Association (Singapore)

31 May and 1 June, Festival Village, Main Stage, 7-8.30pm

The marriage between words and music brings out the best of both forms. And if words carry in themselves the passion or fervour of the author, it becomes the role of music to convey these emotions right through to her listeners. Songs when sung in earnestness can weave out these affect behind the poetry, and their lyricism takes on an embodied state of sublimity when sung in harmony. This is what the 15 year-old Choral Association will be aiming to do in their presentation of Chinese choral music from the 1950s to the 1970s.

It was then a period entangled between Chinese chauvinism and communism. Music has always been a tool for propaganda in good times and bad. From the chanting of the Georgian monks to the belting of anthems at sporting tournaments, the song is the vehicle to rouse and arouse. No surprise that everyday life of the Chinese proletariat is set to music for they lie closest in spirits to the buoyant rhythms of work and nature. There were neither computers nor much electricity then and the means to spread the word would be through rhetoric. And what would be a more persuasive method than to vocalise through melody.

If you walk through the Festival Village on the evening of 31 May and 1 June, be prepared to join in the festive bellowing of authentic Chinese tunes sung by a hoard of 50 choristers. Learn of the romance of the horse carriage driver or pledge your allegiance to protect the yellow river; immerse yourself in the rich pentatonic allure of pretty jasmine or unite in peace and camaraderie with your comrades. These themes and more are what our parents and grandparents had espoused during the times of turbulence. Come and soak in a mood of pride and nostalgia, and as what the president of the Choral Association Mr. Lee Yuk Chuan told me, “to relive the dreams and aspirations of our bygone memories”.

Jun Zubillaga-Pow

T’ang Quartet in rehearsal
May 29, 2011, 8:28 pm
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Singapore’s favourite boy band, the T’ang Quartet, performs a world premiere this Tuesday and Wednesday. Here are some pictures from their (1) trip to Jin Sha Tui, (2) rehearsal at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, and (3) dialogue session this past week with the composer Hu Xiao Ou at the Esplanade. Bring your ears to the School of the Arts! (


Jun Zubillaga-Pow (Musicologist)

Lack of (he)art
May 18, 2011, 1:20 am
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You know,I realised why the Festival Village is so lacklustre these past 5 days is because of the absence of art! Yes, there’re great food and disco music… (yes, disco music!)… but these don’t make a village arty. Yes, I know there will be a few musicians playing there or films being shown later on, but there must at least be some visual appeal, other than navigating through the 2-storey-high kelong (Malay for stilt house) to get to the Main Stage.

So I suggest we bring in both the fashion models and the performance artists! The latter are the most portable and quirky and will surely draw a crowd or entertain those who are already at the village. It would be great to see Yellow Man (aka Lee Wen) prance around from stall to table, or a bunch of male and female beach-wear models showing off the city’s latest creative talent alla Ashley Isham. Then, at least my brotwurst (sausages) and Tung Lok buns might taste a tad more delicious. Time for interventionist art! Don’t be shy, be yourself at this year’s Singapore Arts Festival!

Jun Zubillaga-Pow

Academy of Ancient Music
May 15, 2011, 10:15 pm
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The Academy of Ancient Music will be conducted by Richard Egarr with Korean soprano Sumi Jo in a breathtaking showcase of English and Italian Baroque music at the Esplanade Concert Hall for two evenings on 16 and 17 May.   The first programme features a set of luminous arias composed by Handel, Purcell, and Vivaldi, and also includes chamber works from Albinoni’s Concerto for 2 Oboes to Handel’s The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba. After a pre-show talk at 5pm on 17 May, the Academy of Ancient Music will perform an impeccable selection of solo and ensemble pieces in programme that includes Handel’s Organ Concerto, Bach’s perennially beloved Concerto for Violin and Oboe, and Handel’s Overture to Saul.  

The Academy of Ancient Music, formerly directed by Christopher Hogwood, has long received wide and critical acclaim for its impeccable period performances.  Musicians of the Academy also perform on a stunning collection of early Baroque instruments.  In a recent interview, Richard Egarr, Music Director of the Academy of Ancient Music, spoke with Singaporean musicologist Jun Zubillaga-Pow on what audiences can expect from the showcase. 


Q:  How does the quality of period instruments affect the way a new member of audience might come to perceive the sound of the Academy of Ancient Music? Is this sound more European, possibly?

A: “Baroque instruments have colours inherently connected to their time and place of origin.  A seventeenth-century violin from Mittenwald is discernibly different from a late eighteenth-century Italian violin, and Baroque wind instruments vary according to their place of origin likewise.  A significant part of the creation of an ‘authentic’ Baroque sound involves the apprehension of such acoustic variegations and in light of the incorporation of said differences.”

Q: Does the Academy of Ancient Music acknowledge, approach and interpret English, Italian, and German music in discernibly distinct ways likewise?

A: “Yes!  Each musical language has its own characteristic inflections, and such stylistic variations should be reflected in any given concert.”

Q: Do you suppose a period performance that reflects an understanding of historically-informed Baroque style and technique is a means by which instrumentalists might seek to remember the past?

A: “Musicians of the Academy use period instruments to understand the music that was written for them.  This is coupled with a historical and technical understanding, and such is reflected in the music we perform for modern audiences today.”

Q: How might a new member of the audience come to approach a period performance? 

A: “This music was written by incredible composers like Bach, Purcell, Vivaldi, and Handel; people who wrote music for communities from several walks of life.  This is music that people can and will respond emotionally to.  I’m sure that this great music can connect with any audience!”

Q: What special arrangements or care has the chamber ensemble taken in light of shaping and shading its performances for a venue as large as the Esplanade Concert Hall? 

A: “We have to use everything we have to create maximum expression.  That means playing as loudly as possible, but also, (and more importantly), playing as softly as possible – always the most special moments in a concert for me.”

Written and compiled by Duana Chan


When a Gray Taiwanese Cow Stretched by Ishinha
May 13, 2011, 11:13 am
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Thursday 12 May 2011 7.15pm / Review by Jun Zubillaga-Pow

Attending a contemporary theatre performance is like partaking in a ritual of play and make-believe. At least for this reviewer, this show felt like a long period drama set between 1898 and 2000 with everything compressed within the two-hour outdoor grandeur. (Hot!) So there is really not enough time to sink oneself into the melodrama of small town friendship or the vexation of wartime catastrophes. One scene tails another with contrast as the sole teleological criterion.

We began on the seafront as the 37 actors (including 11 from Singapore) danced their sacred ritual with gestures of knitting and towing. Coiled in a bent posture for most of the opening scene, their choreographed synchrony was just as good as or even better than our annual NDP (National Day Parade) formations. After some knee-lifts and tip-toeing, the characters with all their faces painted white, quasi a derivative of traditional kabuki, started to tell their tales.

Scripted mostly in a question-and-answer format, they tossed personal narratives among themselves: “Where are you? Who are you?” The replies came without hesitation so atypical of Asians when asked about these facts. On this point, the acting came through as stale. Despite the enrichment of the theatrical misé en scene, the tales of growing up and starting a business or family have failed to convinced this reviewer of their sincerity in sharing intimate details. It felt as if the actors have merely regurgitated the life stories of their estranged compatriots.

Perhaps there is a good excuse that the characters are all Japanese immigrants who have sailed along the ‘Black Current’ at different times of the last century and settling down in obscure locales like Saipan (USA), Benguet (Philippines) and Pulau Morotai (Indonesia). The accompanying music was nevertheless more coherent. I spoke to the musical director Kasuhisa Uchihashi (who will also be playing the daxophone at Blu Jazz Cafe on 18 May!) at the Festival Village Tuckshop and he concurs that his one-man-band was not out to re-create the politically-correct sounds or music of the ethnic people. Instead, what one hears throughout the 120-minute ‘soundscape’ (as one Royston Tan calls it) is a pervasive tussle of your heart-strings.

The music is powerful and so is the choreography, such as that of the twelve maidens welcoming people home with their totemic hand gestures, at times wriggly, at times subdued. Their involvement acts like ephemeral transitions, weaving in and out of major scenes with them chanting a polyphonic onomatopoeia of what the troupe calls “Osaka Rap”. At least for this evening, their impeccably crisp delivery stood out best among the cast. All in all, the show title best sums up this work of art; Absurdism has established itself in East Asia.