Even though she’s seen a meteoric rise to fame after placing in the finals of Sing China! last year, Joanna Dong has remained incredibly humble and down to earth. “I’ve been getting so many opportunities to work with groups I never got a chance to before, and the only downside is that I’m so busy now, I wish I was able to work with some of the smaller collaborations again,” she says as she gets her hair done in the dressing room.
Today (4th March), she’s at the China Cultural Centre at Queen Street to perform alongside the Ding Yi Music Company for a special Chinese New Year Concert, singing hits that got her her position on Sing China, alongside some specially arranged numbers just for the occasion. Says Joanna: “Chinese Orchestra music often gets a bad rap because it’s so difficult to play. Most people’s first exposure to it was probably during assembly in school, and the pitching will definitely be a bit jialat because they’ve just learnt it. But when you hear it played at at a high level, it’s so different and just brilliant.”
Joanna is no stranger to unusual collaborations. Since coming into the public eye in the very first season of Singapore Idol back in 2004, she’s gone on to work with groups as varied as Gamelan Asmaradana to Brazilian all-star band Bossa Negra on a Mandarin translation of bossa nova standard ‘Summer Samba’. Joanna’s voice is full of pride as she elaborates: “I wouldn’t be who I am today if not for these people giving me so many opportunities to widen my musical foundation’s breadth. They were such an instrumental part of my growth, and I hope I’ve done them proud by coming this far.”
Joanna is of course, also known for her roles in theatre, frequently working with The Theatre Practice and even nabbing a Life! Theatre Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in xinyao musical If There’re Seasons, as well as joining the international cast of I came at last to the seas, the Esplanade’s first locally commissioned work for the Esplanade Theatre at Huayi 2018. Says Joanna: “TTP is my theatre family, and I really admire people who do theatre full time. It’s never about the money; I could have made a lot more during this period singing at corporate gigs for example, and really, it’s such an immeasurable experience, and a very conscious choice born from real passion.”
With the many scenes she straddles, it makes complete sense for her to work together with Ding Yi. Says Joanna: “It’s so refreshing to hear how different musicians reinterpret these songs I’ve become famous for. Initially I was worried it might be too contrived or if it’ll even gel, but in the process, I found so many moments that made sense, and some of the instrumentation sounds even better than the original! It’s moments like these that I really feel the joy of being a singer, and feel how even the most grating of Chinese New Year songs can really take on new life with the right arrangement. It ain’t what you do, it’s the way you do it.”
Fast forward a couple of minutes later and we’re already at the concert itself, watching as one of Singapore’s premier, genre-busting Chinese Chamber ensembles played tunes that represented exactly what Chinese Chamber Music is capable of. Conducted by Dedric Wong, the concert opened with See Chee-Hang’s arrangement of ‘The Battle of the Snake and Bee’ (蛇蜂战舞) showed a good flexibility and range of Chinese instruments, allowing audiences to hear every individual instrument and create a scene of battle in one’s mind’s eye. This was followed up with ‘The Garden After Rain’ (雨后庭院), featuring a Zhongruan solo by Kenny Chan Jing Wen. Kenny seemed almost one with the instrument in this atmospheric piece, binding the song together with his tunes.
It’s not all instrumental music though – in the next three songs, Chinese folk singer and soprano He Cai Xia took to the stage to perform three traditional songs. Trained in Bel Canto techniques and a vocal instructor at several clan associations, He is one of the rare folk vocalists still around who excel at the art form. In all three songs (《青藏高原》，《远情》and《山歌好比春江水》), He displayed incredible range and articulation, and it was evident that the older audience members were enjoying it as they hummed along.
Post-intermission, we returned to more Chinese Chamber music, with Ladies of Alishan (阿里山的姑娘) bringing to mind women joyously strolling down a mountain, having casual conversation and full of happiness. The musicians really brought us on a beautiful journey here, alongside the medley of familiar tunes in Spring Medley (新春组曲), well arranged by Sim Boon Yew. The chamber music showcase ended off with a cello solo by Chee Jun Sian titled Metaphysical North (玄朔), specially composed for this concert. Despite plenty of difficult naturals, sharps and odd notes in the piece, Chee performed the piece beautifully and exhibited perfect control over the cello.
But of course, the highlight of the show was none other than Joanna Dong herself, whose vocals were out in full force as she came onstage singing 《恋曲1990》. Joanna is an incredibly versatile performer, showcasing full vocal control as she shifts from performing a difficult ‘mouth trumpet’ to her own natural voice, breathing life into the songs tinged with jazz and blues. Always armed with a smile and a spring in her step, her charm translated into a strong sense of warmth in the audience, easily overwhelmed by the sheer joy she emanates as she performs. In performing her Sing China! mentor’s song 《简单爱》mashed up with The Carpenters’ ‘On Top Of The World’, it’s evident that she’s grown so much and learnt a lot from Jay Chou. Ending off the concert with a spectacular, jazz inspired version of the classic 《我要你的爱》，and even getting the audience to clap along, Joanna cements her position as a performer extraordinaire, and is sure to go further than ever in the years to come.
Ding Yi has established themselves firmly with this concert to start off their 2018 season, and showcased a strong mix of music that really brought out the beauty of Chinese Chamber music. Closing the concert with an encore with Joanna as they performed a rearrangement of 《贺新年》，the hackneyed song was given a new breath of life as Joanna put her signature spin on it, and left the audience with rapturous applause for the amazing talent they witnessed onstage and new appreciation for Chinese Chamber music.
Ding Yi’s next programme will be Onwards: A Ruan and Zheng Recital at the Esplanade Recital Studio on 17th April. Tickets available from the Esplanade. To keep up with Ding Yi and find out more about their upcoming events, visit their website here