17 August 2019

New Music in Singapore

Always trust your editor.  That's been a long-standing rule of mine.  After all, your editor is responsible for making sure your work doesn't break any laws, doesn't fall foul of overall editorial policies and is presented in a way which will be acceptable to the readership, about which the editor is uniquely qualified.  Occasionally sub-editors tweak your copy in ways which spoil it, or remove passages which you felt were remarkably clever and perceptive.  But, in the main, I accept what they do and rarely complain.

The other day, however, my copy came under the green pen of a sub-editor at the Straits Times whom I had not encountered before and who was clearly totally befuddled by my review of the first piece in the concert.  So many changes were made to my copy that it ended up not only being strangely incoherent, but, more significantly, saying something which I certainly did not want to be said in print.  For the first time ever, a protracted email correspondence went back and forth with me asking for changes to be reversed and original statements to be preserved.  In the end, I had so completely lost track of what I had written that I went back to the original and present it here for the benefit of anyone who can't quite fathom what the published version is all about!

Wang Jian – Flowing Sleeves

Singapore Symphony Orchestra/Wang Jian (cello)/Jessica Cottis (conductor)

Esplanade Concert Hall

Thursday (15 August)

Marc Rochester

Despite both pieces in the first half of this concert being written by composers of Chinese descent within the last 18 months, they could not have been more different.

Joyce Koh suggested that her piece, “one”, focused on the triangle.  But after an initial tinkle, Jonathan Fox and his triangle were quickly overwhelmed by a huge mass of frenetic orchestral sound.  For the best part of five minutes, virtually every member of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra was playing flat out, and if there was any kind of aural variety, it passed unnoticed.

The full title of Koh’s work refers to the mathematical Golden Ratio – one point six one eight zero – but its relevance seemed aurally obscure.  However, it is unfair to judge the work on the evidence of just the single movement we heard here (the second “one” of the full title).  If and when the complete work is performed, one certainty is that the fourth movement will not provide any moment of calm respite to either players or audience.

Nevertheless, calm respite was much in evidence in the next work.  Spearheaded by the current crop of outstanding Chinese cellists, Chinese-born composers have produced some exceptional concertos for the instrument in recent years, and Wang Jian is currently doing the rounds presenting Zhou Tian’s concerto Flowing Sleeves which he premiered in Hangzhou last July.  This was Singapore’s turn to hear this concerto, which was inspired by the flowing sleeves of the costumes worn by performers in traditional Chinese opera.

The musical language was rich, opulent, luxurious, infinitely varied and at times profoundly beautiful.  Wang is certainly a compelling advocate of the work, and his performance shone with an almost mystical intensity.  Conductor Jessica Cottis’s own jacket sleeves looked decidedly tight and restrictive, but her hands seemed to mould the orchestra around every nuance and gesture Wang produced.

This was a lovely performance of what deserves to become a classic of the cello concerto repertory.  Towards the end of its first movement, there was a subtle allusion to the most famous cello concert of them all, Dvorak’s, which effectively forged a tenuous musical link between this concert’s two halves - the second half was given over the Dvorak’s ebullient Eighth Symphony.

Ebullient seems the key word here, for Cottis was determined to give it all she had.  The dance passages were bursting with energy, the folk-like melodies laid the pathos on with a trowel, and the scintillating climaxes positively fizzed with supercharged enthusiasm.  All this came at the cost of clear inner detail and, especially in the second movement, secure wind intonation, but it seemed the perfect way to end a concert which had seen the orchestra pushed and pulled around in almost every conceivable direction.

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