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Review: Tune In 2020 by Ding Yi Music Company

Screenshot 2020-10-13 at 10.59.32 AM

As one of Singapore’s foremost Chinese chamber music ensembles, it’s always been a part of Ding Yi Music Company’s ethos to make sure their sound remains relevant, and show the world that there is still very much a place for Chinese chamber music in this day and age. That’s an idea that comes to the fore with their annual Tune In concert, with this year’s edition marking their first ticketed concert of the season, streamed online and presented in collaboration with Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.

For this year’s edition, Tune In was conducted by Ding Yi Principal Conductor Quek Ling Kiong, and shines a spotlight on a line-up of six female composers, namely, Ding Yi Composium 2018 winner Chua Jon Lin, 2019 Young Artist Award recipient Emily Koh, Dr Joyce Koh, Koh Cheng Jin, Liong Kit Yeng, and Wang Dan Hong. The performance opened with a speech by conductor Quek, as he explained the decision to feature female composers, and how important it was to help audiences better appreciate and understand contemporary music.

In the first piece of the evening, Dr Joyce Koh introduced her piece Isskimmer, which means “shimmering ice” in Swedish. Featuring the sheng, guzheng, yangqin, percussion and double bass, the piece comprises six movements, each one representing a different state of ice. Isskimmer begins with a sense of uncertainty, as if the instruments are outlining ice shards (or isskärvor), unsure where they’ll fall, helped by how the camera captures the musicians’ facial expressions, bringing the piece to life. In the second movement, the plucking of the guzheng creates a tentative sensation, like we’re walking on ice. In the third movement, the double bass adds a depth and echo to the atmospheric tone, almost as if the ice shards corral and form an ice cave. The guzheng then makes us feel like we’re on ice with every movement, careful ensure our steps are as light as possible, while the sheng, as a wind instrument, makes us imagine the cold win blowing in our faces. Towards the end, the clashing chords made us feel as if the ice and cold has left us uncertain on where to go next, as we wonder if we should explore more or retreat to our cabin. But as the chords mellow out, it feels like we’re left with clarity and a single ice shard, in a beautiful surrounding of serenity and tranquility all around us as the storm has passed.

Liong Kit Yeng’s Free-Spirited takes inspiration from Chinese idioms, and takes audiences on a ‘contemplative auditory journey’ to relay the sense of free-spiritedness, as its title suggests. From the get-go, it seems she wants us to be in a peaceful meditative state, as the music flows through us. It’s almost like we can hear the laughter and see smiles on faces as the music embodies a free spirit roaming the fields, The pace then picks up on this arduous journey, and we begin to imagine the challenges ahead as the ensemble plays increasingly ominous music. The plucked instruments feel like we’re approaching the challenge while the double bass and sheng are edging us closer and closer, and the drumbeats resembling our heartbeat. But light-footed, we move across and finally reach our destination. One imagines this journey almost like a process of reincarnation, but where we eventually end up is really anyone’s guess. 

In Wang Dan Hong’s Depiction of the Sea, there is a sense of mystery in this technical piece, requiring the performers to have a firm understanding of the delicate musicality and emotional control involved. When it begins, it almost feels like we’re entering a new location, with the first moving ending with a fast pace to segue into the second movement, with the yangqin and guzheng displaying Chinese sounds melded with a Western musicality. The second movement was particularly tricky with fast transitions and playing across different octaves, we could even see the sweat trickling from conductor Quek’s forehand as he led the ensemble through the difficult and technically challenging movement. Still, as the dust finally settles, we feel a sense of poignance, and it gives us a moment of respite and space to think and reflect on the piece.

NAC Young Artist Award recipient Emily Koh’s Resonate is a rearranged version of her original 2017 piece, and takes inspiration from the confluence of Eastern and Western musicality, with mixed instrumentation that hopes to expand and explore these fusion ideas. More specifically, it seems to bring together Singaporean, Teochew, and Peranakan culture and heritage through her foundation of Western musical training. As the music plays, we begin to think about multiple conversations going on at the same time, from everyday Singlish, to the Mandarin and Teochew conversations Emily has with her grandparents. Clashing notes represent the many languages we’re surrounded by, and we reflect on how important conversation is for communication, bridging our gaps. 

As winner of Ding Yi’s Composium 2018, Jon Lin Chua’s Reminiscences of Yuan Xiao takes inspiration and reimagines the traditional nanyin piece Yuan Xiao Shi Wu (Lantern Festival), about the tragic love story of Chen San and Wu Niang. This was also the first piece she learned when studying nanyin vocal performance at the Siong Leng Musical Association. The key idea in this piece seems to be to play with sounds, where despite the diversity of instruments, with how everything aligns, it becomes difficult to tell which belongs to which. Much like how the stars align for a lantern festival, the piece also captures the festive mood with its noise and fanfare.

In the final piece, Koh Cheng Jin presented Legend of Badang. Based on one of Singapore’s most famous myths, Cheng Jin (a masters student at Juilliard) was completely elated to share about the inspiration behind the piece, as the legend of Badang was one of her favourite legends as a kid. The piece opens with an almost eerie sensation, like we were in a kampung at night, hearing the sounds of trees rustling and footsteps across the ground. It feels like we’re entering a dark place, with something uncertain in the air, before the music builds up and represents the sun rising. It feels as if we can see the whole kampung before our eyes, with the instruments showing different characters up and about. They then prepare for battle, and we hear the tension in the sound as they face off against one another. The suona, for instance, gives the impression that they’re circling one another. The ‘battle cries’ from Wadi Vijaya on the dizi seem to showcase Badang’s confident and assertive nature, while the Javanese drums show the battlefield as they size each other up, before the rumble of the battle ensues, mimicking the sound of stones rolling. Towards the end of the piece, the music comes to a halt as Badang emerges victorious. There is a pause in the air, as if Badang has flung the massive stone into the Singapore River, stopping the flow of the water abruptly, becoming what is now the Singapore Stone. The piece comes to an end, and encapsulates themes of perseverance and triumph.

In all, we’re left impressed by how Ding Yi is committed to their cause of helping audiences understand and appreciate Chinese chamber music, especially with how each piece is preceded by a quick explanation from the composer, and conductor Quek going through the order of the day and sharing his own thoughts. We think again about how Quek emphasised in his opening speech about the importance to remain open-minded ,the need to adapt to and embrace these unprecedented times, as Ding Yi continues to push and promote such contemporary works.

Tune In 2020 streamed from 15th October to 1st November 2020. More information available on The Esplanade

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