The Arts House Living Room
Thursday (24 May 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 26 May 2012 with the title "Young composers show promise". 

The realm where the young composers of Singapore today inhabit looks like a vibrant and thought-provoking environment to be part of. This chamber concert showcased the diverse talents of five such individuals, all alumni of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, who are unafraid to bare their souls and express their innermost secrets.

Chinese music with a Singaporean vibe: Ernest Thio's Poise.

The stereotype of the unapologetic Schoenbergian or Boulez-wannabe seems to be in the minority these days, with more composers re-embracing tonality and its aural comforts. Ernest Thio, whose music opened the closed the concert, has a fine ear for harmony through exotic timbres. In I Felt a Funeral in My Brain, based on Emily Dickinson poems, he skilfully blended two voices with lush piano chords in a work that saw death as a passage of solace rather than anguish.

Ernest Thio's Nian employed an unusual quartet of Samuel King (Piano), the composer (Ukelele), Dominica Chua (Erhu) and Rozie Hoong (Zhonghu).

In the brief Poise, an erhu and zhonghu played out an elegy as counterpoint to the piano’s bare theme. Most memorable was Thio’s Nianfor huqins, piano and ukulele, a memory of his Hokkien-speaking grandmother who lived in a Buddhist temple which used a chant as its subject. Thio’s part on the Hawaiian guitar simulated that of a strummed Chinese instrument. This is a reminiscence of Chinese music, viewed through Singaporean lenses.

The ensemble for Luo Enning's My One True Love: the composer (piano), Yap Pheck Chuan (Violin), Doreen Yeo (Clarinet) and Bernard Yong (Glockenspiel).

Luo Enning’s My One True Love was even more unusual, a 21st century work that completely avoided dissonances and even minor chords. Scored for violin, clarinet, glockenspiel and piano, its vision of eros resembled the quasi-jazzy and deliberately simplistic dance music of Shostakovich, but minus the irony and guile.

Lu Heng's Blues of the Day was played by the composer (piano), Christoven Tan  (Viola), Clarence Chung (Electric guitar) and Shaun Soh (Drums).

In Lu Heng’s Blues of the Day, a spirit of improvisation came to the fore. The electric guitar and drum-set made it sound more like a rock band rather than jazz combo. Rhythmic from start to end, one would not have been too surprised had the riffs of Lalo Schifrin’s Mission Impossible Theme burst out with guns blazing.

And then there were two solo works that showed that atonality was not completely dead. Alicia De Silva’s 12-minute long Cadenza (from Suite for Viola), played by Christoven Tan, was almost a suite in itself as it explored a myriad of moods and responses, from its ruminative beginning to Schnittke-like pages of seething violence.

Christoven Tan (Viola) and Gabriel Lee (Violin)

Similarly, Bernard Lee Kah Hong’s And it Happens to Drop from Beneath, the work that won the 2011 National Violin Competition composition award, truly tested violinist Gabriel Lee’s mettle. Operating at a narrower range of dynamics, its understated virtuosity nevertheless probed varying degrees of psychological disquiet.     

This 70-minute snapshot of our nation’s varied compositional landscape was both an invigorating and encouraging signpost of how and where our music is heading to.

The composers' circle (from L to R): Ernest Thio, Lu Heng, Alicia De Silva, Donna Koh (Moderator), Bernard Lee Kah Hong and Luo Enning.