It is not often that the Singapore Symphony Orchestra performs crossover concerts, and even less so when it involves a traditional Chinese instrument. Given this was barely a fortnight after Chinese New Year, the reasons seemed compelling. The big draw was China-born and Berlin-based sheng virtuoso Wu Wei. Despite the Wuhan Coronavirus scare that has sent many Singapore residents into isolation, there was a sizeable audience to witness Wu’s two-hour long solo spectacle. 

Wu Wei, Joshua Tan and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra

The sheng is a thousand-year-old hand-held blown instrument with pipes, which produces a unique sonority so wide-ranging that it has been compared with the harmonica, accordion, panpipes and pipe organ. Comfortable in single and multiple tones (even tone clusters), it is extremely versatile as Wu so amply demonstrated. 

There were two contemporary original concertante works, both performed in the second half, which was the programme’s main course. These were preceded and followed by various shorter and transcribed works, showcasing the instrument’s full capabilities.

A virtuoso’s paradise might describe the Juilliard-schooled Chinese composer Huang Ruo’s The Colour Yellow, a 22-minute long sheng concerto in three connected sections. The programme notes attempt to convey the idea that the work was inspired by the multiple representations of yellow in Chinese culture. Examples include the Yellow River (Huang He), Yellow Mountain (Huang Shan), yellow earth (huang tudi or the Chinese loess plateau, symbolic of Chinese hardship and toil), yellow skin colour and, most possibly, also the composer’s own surname. Appreciating the work would be to just soak in its eventful wash of sound effects and instrumental colour. 

It was as if Wu, the dedicatee, had instructed the composer to throw every possible device at him; the avant-garde and experimental, the atonal, tonal and modal, were encompassed within. The opening page itself was filled with solo notes, chords, overtones, whistling and percussive effects. Strings, woodwinds, brass, piano and percussion were all kept busy supporting the exuberant Wu, and three of the brass players also doubled on triads blown on conch shells. Atonalism did however give way to reassuring chords and even broad melody, accompanied by tremolos on the piano. A vigorous and percussive dance soon ensued but the work ended quietly with a collective vocalised shhh... from the ensemble. 

About over a third its length was Malaysia-born Chinese composer Chong Kee Yong’s Remembering the Old Fishing Village, commissioned by the SSO and receiving its world premiere. Modernism tinged with post-Debussian impressionism coloured the composer’s childhood memories of the fishing hamlet Kukup, situated at the southernmost point of continental Asia. This is a marine piece, complete with instrumental mimicry of aquatic birds, waves and the never-ceasing pulse of the sea captured within a rainswept vista. The vibraphone, celesta, sandbox, water-filled wine glasses, bells, gongs and the ubiquitous conch all add layers of textures to Wu passionate solo act. If Huang’s work stood out as a solo sheng tour de force, Chong’s assimilation of the sheng into chamber forces was integration par excellence. Conductor Joshua Tan, also a Juilliard graduate, admirably kept the busy solo and ensemble forces together. 

The balance of the concert was a hodgepodge of short pieces, some with sheng and others without. Standing out were Yan Hai Deng’s Tunes of Jin Opera, an encyclopaedic display of solo prowess based on ancient melodies and Wu’s own arrangement of the popular Dragon Dance by Nie Er (also the composer of the March of the Volunteers, the Chinese national anthem). The latter revelled in a call and response repartee with different instrumental groups within the ensemble. 

Western classical music made a token appearance with arrangements by Wu and Holland Baroque of JS Bach’s Andante from Violin Sonata no. 2 in A minor – with the sheng resplendent in the solo line - and Vivaldi’s virtuosic La Folia. The well-received encore was also by Bach: the Air from the Orchestra Suite no. 3