FIDDLE FADDLE INTERNATIONAL / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (14 July 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 16 July 2012 with the title "Cross-cultural experiment succeeds".

Although not emblazoned on the Singapore Chinese Orchestra’s mission statement, one of the orchestra’s passions is bringing  diverse musical cultures of the world closer together. This evening’s concert conducted by Yeh Tsung celebrating string playing from Chinese, Gypsy and Celtic traditions may be judged as its most successful cross-cultural experiment to date.

A concert opening with Leroy Anderson’s Fiddle Faddle transcribed for Chinese instruments already suggests something quite extraordinary. Although the huqinsmaintained a hushed sotto vocepresence through most of this perpetual motion, Chen Ning Chi’s slick orchestration kept the winds and percussion busy to marvellous and mercurial effect.

The first fiddler to step up was Alexander Souptel, concertmaster of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and already well-known for his forays into gypsy music. Freed from his usual strait-jacketed role, he gave a most irrepressibly unbuttoned showing in Gypsy Rhapsodyorchestrated by Phoon Yew Tien. 

There were portamenti (slides and slurs) galore, and every impulse was to improvise on the spot and dazzle with cheeky play on harmonics and overtones. In melodies like Monti’s Csardas, Whistling Horaand Russian favourite Dark Eyes (Ochi Chorniye), a free-spirited wizardry held court while the orchestra manfully kept pace with his rather elastic concept of timing. 

While Souptel pranced on stage at every turn, Chinese erhu virtuosa Wang Xiao Nan was his polar opposite, maintaining a stolid, rock-like posture for her pieces. In Chen Gang’s Sunshine Over Tashkhurganand a rhythmic Tibetan medley called Paradise, her playing exuded an amazon-like physicality, sturdy and unflinching in tone yet nimble and agile in her virtuosic passage-work.      

After the interval, Celtic fiddler Chris Stout impressed with a heartfelt amble in the slow and meditative Da Trows Jigbefore segueing into the tear-jerking strophic hymn of Michaelswood, both original compositions of his. Then came six Celtic melodies in Eric Watson’s foot-tapping medley Fiddlers Free, which saw him flying full throttle, while luxuriating with the familiar O Waly Waly as its glorious centrepiece.  

All three fiddlers were united in Watson’s A Confluence of Voices, a work where the greatest challenge was to engage each instrument at its own idiom and forte, while uniting them sensibly as in a triple concerto. Souptel, Wang and Stout first played in unison, and then their parts separated with chances for individual display. As in the price of globalisation, it was inevitable that each had lost a bit of its uniqueness but gained a little something from the others.

It closed with a hearty jig where all three greatly relished their roles, continuing into the encore-like Race of Three Fiddlers, orchestrated by Watson and based on the erhu-classic Horse Racing. It was a neck and neck tussle, with more ad-libbing before all instruments on stage broke off with the loudest session of synchronised neighing. The result was a photo finish, but with three equal winners.