Bold experiment with Tang poem

Marrying the genres of music, voice and dance into a coherent whole is a difficult proposition and local Chinese chamber music ensemble Ding Yi Music Company should be lauded for attempting this bold experiment.

Of Music And Dance is a modern interpretation of Tang Dynasty poet Bai Juyi's epic poem Pipa Xing, titled in this production as Song Of The Pipa Player.

Lasting an hour and cast in five movements with an overture, the poet (and disgraced government official) is captivated by a pipa player, whose similar fall from grace he finds common ground and a spiritual bond.

The music, jointly composed by Singaporean Phang Kok Jun and Taiwanese Hsu Tzu-chin, found a happy medium with traditional Chinese music and Western compositional techniques.

The main ensemble comprised pipa soloist Chua Yew Kok with five players on stage, who were augmented by eight offstage musicians placed behind the audience, led by conductor Wang Ya Hui.

The illumination provided in the contemplative Overture was striking, with all musicians in immaculate white and the soloist faceless, silhouetted behind a tall screen.

The first movement, Under Moonlit Skies, introduced tenor Isaac Ho and soprano Ng Jing Yun, who first appeared as a shadowy form on the screen. Their voices met, but their eyes did not; this distance and separation were not just physical but also symbolic. They sang selected passages from the 44-verse poem in Mandarin, repeating certain sentences as a form of emphasis.

The verses were not projected and the tiny print on the programme booklet was a strain on the eyes, but there were brief synopses onscreen. This affected the appreciation of the recitations, which came across as a relative weakness in the production. Should these have been read instead of being sung? Some Chinese scholars in the audience pointed to unidiomatic settings of the words and one might defer to their collective wisdom.

The dancers, four from the Re:Dance Theatre in choreography by Albert Tiong, arrived in the pacy second movement, Fretful Strokes In Wistful Thoughts, which provided a needed change in dynamics. Their movements were vigorous and earthy, accompanied by insistent percussion. Unfortunately, latecomers being allowed to fumble their way to empty seats provided an unwanted sideshow.

The third and fourth movements constituted the heart of the work, with pipa player and poet bringing forth their plights. The Song Of The Pipa Player featured soprano, pipa and one dancer, whose movements were more graceful and retiring. In the Song Of The Poet, the protagonist realises the common destiny and commiserates accordingly. The mood was one of underlying sadness and resignation.

The Finale united the performers and the music was optimistic and uplifting. As with all things in life, this brief sense of euphoria was shortlived. The closing sight and sound of Chua's sole pipa gently weeping in solitude and enveloping darkness was surely one for the ages.

This article was first published on December 29, 2015.
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