Singapore Arts Festival Blog

Postmodern Chinese Music? by junzpow
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… by junzpow

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