The Straits Times - East meets West in hymn

This article was published in The Straits Times on 23 June 2014.

This concert by the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra,Singapore’s one-year-old professional symphony orchestra and spiritual successor of the Singapore Festival Orchestra, was a throwback to the early seasons of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. In those days, Choo Hoey regularly programmed Chinese orchestral works in subscription concerts of Western classics to court Chinese-speaking audiences.

These days, the Singapore Chinese Orchestra does the converse by playing Western classics transcribed for Chinese instruments. MFO on this evening has doubled back on this trend by playing a work originally for Chinese instruments arranged for Western orchestra. Liu Xi Jin’sHymn of Wusuli, a concerto for two erhus, sounded perfectly idiomatic in Eric Watson’s masterly orchestration.

The two erhus were retained, performed by Ling Hock Siang and Wilson Neo, both members of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra. The music, instantly accessible, was a paean to fishing, singing and hunting, favourite preoccupations of the Hezhe people who live on the banks of the Wusuli River. It was a pleasure to witness how tightly intertwined the solo parts were, with the duo operating like some musical Siamese twins act through its three movements.

Further clarity was afforded by the subtlety of the accompaniment, always supporting and never overwhelming. The warmth of the strings and brass gave the music a smoother edge which would have contrasted greatly with the earthier and perhaps more strident original.

Two repertoire showpieces opened each half of the concert. Dvorak’s Carnival Overture is an established curtain-raiser, which was given a truly exciting reading. More impressive than the outward bluster was the sensitive and immaculate solo woodwind playing in the work’s quieter central section, going to the heart of its nostalgia.

Equally showy was Richard Strauss’s tone poem Don Juan, with the brass in full throttle. The French horn section can claim credit for a memorable outing, confidently nailing that ruinously familiar clarion call near the end which could have easily gone awry. Conductor Chan Tze Law deserves the plaudits for honing performances that can rival those of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

Finally the concert closed with Strauss’s Horn Concerto No.1, with leading horn virtuoso Han Chang Chou (also SSO Principal Horn) overcoming its multitudes of heroic flourishes and awkward leaps with great aplomb. Live performances of horn concertos here are understandably rare, and this reminded one why the thrill of going to a concert often trumps listening to reproduced recordings at home.

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