What good music does for the soul

Guest conductor Hu Bing Xu, one of the most outstanding conductors in the Chinese music fraternity

It makes you want to cry. It makes you smile. It makes you want to quickly record down your thoughts about it before memories become fuzzy. It makes you feel younger by at least 10 years. These are the effects of good music, and today I was fortunate to hear one.  “Capriccio” (时空随想) was truly one of the best performances I have heard in a long while from the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO).

Conducted by guest conductor Hu Bing Xu (胡炳旭), the music director and principal conductor of the Guangdong Chinese Orchestra, the 100-minute concert featured a meaty offering of six songs. This was my first time watching Conductor Hu work his magic, but he makes such a difference to the performance of the orchestra as compared to SCO’s music director Tsung Yeh (叶聪).

I always felt Tsung Yeh seemed to have ‘lowered’ the benchmarks of traditional Chinese music to cater more to the mass audience. His conducting style was lighthearted at best, trivial at worst. His concerts would slip into unnecessary gimmicks when all we really want is pure, good, unadulterated music. A friend said it was because ticket sales have been drastically falling in recent years (an ominous sign of the difficult times ahead of sustaining traditional Chinese music in Singapore), but I beg to differ.

Traditional Chinese music has experimented with so many routes for survival in a competitive era of audio stimulation, some techniques included modernizing the medium and blending it with pop music to make it more palatable for the masses, or forming girl bands dishing out catchy western music on Chinese instruments. Call me a purist, but ultimately keeping the true essence of traditional Chinese music  has kept it afloat.  Conductor Hu’s approach is markedly different; there’s a kind of resolute steel  in his conducting style – a result of decades of fine experience.  He is austere without being unyielding. Grand, without being over the top. But he’s also considerably older than Tsung, and his stamina visibly wears down in the later part of the concert. Still, his return (Hu was previously SCO’s first appointed music director) was a morale booster for the players. They love him, and the audience knows it.

The concert opener The Soaring Chinese Music (国乐飞扬) made me sit up for the first time and realize there was something different in this performance. They then belted out The Morning Blossoms and the  Evening Moon (花朝月夕), a Cantonese music piece, and then the lofty Four Movements of Shanbei (陕北四章), which featured homegrown dizi player Lin Sin You (林信友). The length piece went from bright and cheery, to nostalgic and then grand. I think the dizi solo performance was awesome. The music was so visual I felt I was watching a movie – imagining sceneries and landscapes. In the third movement, which was played in lento tempo, I had this saying flashing across my mind: “Today I will cling on to nothing. I will not be too elated with success. I will not be too dejected with failure. Everything changes. Everything passes.” Saddening, sobering thought.

Suriram was the first piece played after the interval, and it is an adaption from a local Malay folk song with the same title, describing a young man singing a song to profess his love for his lady Suriram. It’s a very light and happy song, and I was struck by this epiphany: that it is probably only in Singapore or Malaysia, that you get to hear such multicultural Chinese music innovations. Where else but here would you experience a melting pot of different ethnic groups, sharing their culture, music and food?

The next song that followed up was Fantasia of the Western Region (西域随想), featuring the alto erhu played by erhu II principal Zhu Lin (朱霖), and the orchestra. I have to say this is my favourite piece of the evening. According to the programme booklet, the piece narrates an ancient era in the faraway western land where the many ethnic groups lived, where a storyteller (represented by the alto erhu) told a story about life, death, love and hatred. The fastest rhythm is said to hit 170 bits per minute in the allegro. While Zhu used to be my Chinese orchestra conductor in college ( I gamely tried to learn playing erhu in two years), this was the first time in 6 years I have seen him play solo.

I was thoroughly impressed. His delivery was clean and crisp, and almost technically flawless. There were some parts the music was so heart rending I felt like tearing.  I thought the piece resembled classical western music with its very rich tonal layering. It’s like red velvet sliding off a mahogany arm chair… scary how music can even ignite the tactile senses.

Last but not least was an Ode to Peace, which gave the concert its bold finishing. But what probably left the deepest impression was the encore performance. Hu asked a cheering audience, what makes an orchestra play good music? I was expecting something cheesy along the lines of “playing from one’s heart”, but he merely pointed upwards.  He nailed it. What else is there to say?

Hu’s choice of the encore piece, as he explains, deviates from the conventional choice of loud, celebratory pieces. He selected to play a portion of Cavalleria rusticana, a 1890 masterpiece by Italian opera composer Pietro Mascagni.  (I hope I got the translation correct because it was mentioned in Mandarin). In any case, the  opera had a short segment which became a crowd favourite, with people flocking back to the performance just to hear a replay of that portion. It was a very mellow sounding piece, slow and a bit sad. But Hu’s final concluding gesture on stage, an upward pointing finger, would probably last a long while in the memories of amused audience members.

Hours later, I’m on a noisy train packed with happy weekend revellers – from giggling children to gregarious elderly folks speaking in dialect. But the memory of an inspiring performance and its invigorating effects remained firmly ectched in my mind.

The conductor’s signature 🙂


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