Chinese Orchestra back from China, raring to go

If maestro Yeh Tsung, music director and conductor of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO), had his way, he would take his 83-member orchestra on tour every two years at least.

"It is important for the orchestra to test its repertoire and allow our musicians to recharge themselves as they perform alongside their overseas counterparts," he told The Sunday Times at the end of the orchestra's recent 10-day China tour with performances in Shanghai, Nanjing and Suzhou.

More importantly, the 64-year-old believes touring provides an opportunity to showcase Singapore arts abroad.

Even the best orchestras in the world, such as the Boston Symphony Orchestra, he said, go on tour regularly across the US.

The Shanghai-born Yeh Tsung, who was awarded the Cultural Medallion last year, said the Singapore Government and agencies such as the National Arts Council should give their full support not only to the SCO but also any other group which promotes Singapore arts overseas.

"We need to form a national committee and draw up a strategic plan for this," said Yeh Tsung, now an American citizen who is also music director of the South Bend Symphony Orchestra in the US.

Because of lack of funds, the SCO has been able to make only occasional trips overseas in the past.

He led the 18-year-old orchestra on a European tour in 2005 when it performed at the Barbican Centre in London, the Sage Gateshead in north-east England, and the Budapest Spring Festival in Hungary.

In 2009, he took half the orchestra to perform at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland and a year later to Paris as part of the French city's Singapour Festivarts. "All those were great events for us and we only wished we could go to more," said Yeh Tsung, who joined the SCO in 2002.

Its recent tour to China was its third there, following the first in 1998 and the second in 2007. It toured Taiwan in 2000.

Yeh Tsung said the SCO, whose musicians range in age from 23 to 61, put up its best programme ever for its four performances in Shanghai, Nanjing and Suzhou between May 17 and 24, which drew rave reviews from both musicians and audiences.

Its programme included a concert and matinee for children at the Suzhou Arts and Culture Centre to mark the 20th anniversary of the Singapore-Suzhou Industrial Park.

The SCO performed the works of several Singapore composers as well as pieces which reflect multi-racial Singapore, and compositions which show "a strong local Nanyang flavour". "We were in China and most of the instruments we played were also made there.

If we played the same music as most Chinese orchestras do, the audience there may ask, 'Why should we hear you?' So we had to play something very different," said Yeh Tsung.

The orchestra also invited Chinese musicians as guest performers in the three cities. For example, Shanghai-born, Singapore-based cellist Qin Liwei made a guest appearance at the concert in Shanghai and two Kun Opera singers from Suzhou - Shen Fengying and Yu Jiulin - performed at the concert in Suzhou.

But the highlight was when home-grown jazz pianist and composer Jeremy Monteiro performed Singapore composer Kelly Tang's work, Montage: Three Movements for Jazz Piano and Chinese Orchestra. It wowed the Chinese audience with its blend of jazz and Chinese music.

Monteiro, 53, and also a Cultural Medallion recipient, said: "I enjoyed playing the piece and I think the Chinese audience loved it too, judging from their enthusiastic response."

Shanghai Conservatory of Music executive director Chen Ming, who invited the Singapore orchestra to perform at the 84-year-old Senn- heiser Shanghai Concert Hall, said: "SCO is part of our festival programme this year because of its unique blend of Chinese orchestra music with Western and Nanyang flavour music."

President of the China-Jiangsu Performing Arts Group Zhu Changyao, who invited the SCO to perform at the Zi Jin Grand Theatre in Nanjing, said SCO's edge lies in its unique repertoire which no other Chinese orchestra can match.

A Chinese erhu virtuoso himself, Zhu, who performed with the SCO as a guest soloist, added: "SCO is a world-class Chinese orchestra which played the traditional pieces superbly too." Retired professor Zhong Shaoqing, 73, who was in the audience at the Nanjing concert, said: "The orchestra sounds really different from the other Chinese orchestras, not only for its unique programme, but also the liveliness of its conductor, Yeh Tsung, who connected well with the audience." So are more trips abroad on the cards?

SCO chairman Patrick Lee, 66, who accompanied the orchestra throughout its China tour, said: "The success of the tour and the good feedback we received have certainly encouraged us. But we'll have to look for funds first before thinking of travelling again."


This article was first published on June 22, 2014.
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