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Review: “Immerse” Concert (George Town Festival 2021)

Three Malaysian musicians in different parts of the world, digitally united.

Besides inviting international artists to showcase work, the annual George Town Festival is also an opportunity to celebrate and spotlight local talent. And what better way to do that than to highlight the local artists that have found international success? Thanks to the internet, George Town Festival has united pianist Chow Jun Yi, ruan player Raymond Choo Boon Yew, and yangqin player Tan Yong Yaw in a single online concert, presenting new compositions and arrangements to showcase these Malaysian musicians.

Despite being physically apart, with Jun Yi in New York, Raymond in Macau, and Yong Yaw in Malacca, the three musicians appear to be playing together in the pre-recorded video, thanks to well-produced sound recordings, and crisp, clear videography that makes the musicians seem synchronised with each other.

The “Immerse” concert starts off on a high note, with the J-rock inspired “Fire Up!”, as composed by Chow Jun Yi. Anime fans are likely to immediately take to this number, reminiscent of an action-packed, fast paced opening song that equally highlights all three musicians, and surprises with how these ‘traditional’ instruments can sound so modern, rhythmic and pulsating, setting the tone for the rest of the concert.

Raymond Choo Boon Yew

The remainder of the concert sees Jun Yi take the lead, as he introduces his fellow collaborators, and gives us insight into each song (many of which were composed by him). To start off, they began with Lin Ji-Liang and Ning Yong’s ‘Cold Wind In The Pines’ for daruan solo, as inspired by a traditional Chang’an tune. Raymond takes centrestage here, and uses a combination of ruan techniques, from plucking to strumming to create a desolate mood and bring out the loneliness of being in a forest alone. Even as a solo piece, Raymond effectively shows the versatility of the instrument by creating such an introspective soundscape, and allows us to imagine getting lost in a dark wood.

In the world premiere of Jun Yi’s ‘The Beyond’, all three musicians played ‘together’, and shows what happens when these instrumentations are taken to their limits, Inspired by the song ‘Lament of Lady Zhaojun’, the piece begins with Jun Yi on the piano, before Yong Yaw comes in on the yangqin, and Raymond on the ruan, as we imagine a woman walking in a cold, snowy area, lost and afraid. But as the piece progresses, the tune seems to lift in mood and tempo, as if our lady is gaining strength as she recalls her past, happier memories, growing more confident and shedding her weariness. While this does eventually fade, as if she snaps out of her reverie, the final bars of the piece are noticeably lighter in tone than the beginning, perhaps showing how she has been reinvigorated by her memories and is ready to face reality once again.

Tan Yong Yaw

The next piece, Xiang Zu-Hua’s ‘Summer Lotus’, is inspired by traditional Han music from Guangdong, and utilises yangqin techniques such as bending the strings to create softer, quieter sounds. One can imagine sitting by a pond and gazing out at the water as spring shifts into summer, lulling us into a more relaxed mood as we visualise lotuses in bloom. On the yangqin, Yong Yaw manipulates the strings with expertise, knowing how to produce a specific sound across any of the 144 strings, and proves the versatility of the instrument, and how even on a solo number like this, can still sound rich and layered.

In the world premiere of Jun Yi’s ‘Moments’, the three musicians come together once again, and play on a single piano refrain that repeats throughout. A serene, relaxing piece, it’s a natural follow up to ‘Summer Lotus’, as it builds up from subtle notes to a complete environment. As one listens, one imagines we’re in the midst of stepping into a new world, taking our time to explore our surroundings as we become increasingly familiarised, and go from a tentative walk to a run, our mood uplifted as the music similarly soars.

In Jun Yi’s ‘Rain Sketch’, he incorporates the sound of natural rain into the background of this piano-driven piece, immediately allowing us to imagine being in a melancholic mood on a wet afternoon. At first, the rain is a constant presence, almost the same volume as the piano’s notes. But as it progresses, the piano grows more confident, crescendoing and drowning out the sounds of the rain, as if the persona has learnt to dance in the rain and soak it up, a clever way of playing with volume levels in a pre-recorded piece.

Chow Jun Yi

Bringing the nostalgic past into the present, the concert then presented Jun Yi’s new arrangement of the classic song ‘Rasa Sayang’. Taking us back to the kampungs of old, this arrangement begins with Jun Yi on the piano, slow and reflective, before we hear the familiar notes that form the song’s opening sounds. We imagine an older person thinking back to his childhood in the village, allowing his mind and memory to wander to simpler times as the melody breaks into a more jaunty tune. Joined by both the ruan and yangqin, the piece becomes increasingly jaunty. Each instrument is given ample opportunity to showcase their individual sound, and we can imagine an entire kampung coming together to celebrate once all three musicians are fully involved in the piece. You can’t help but feel happy as you listen to this, thanks to nostalgia and its light-hearted mood, and you practically want to sing along.

The concert concluded with the final number, ‘Let’s Snap!’, as composed by Jun Yi. Involving all three musicians, this was a rousing piece to end the show, reminiscent of Spanish street music you’d hear as people danced along to it, showcasing the versatility of these instruments and ability to tackle such a wide variety of international sounds, despite their Chinese origins. As a whole, the “Immerse” concert felt like an accessible way to learn about these instruments and the sounds they could produce and understanding of music, garnering a stronger appreciation for Malaysia’s multicultural arts, and a celebration of these talented artists and musicians who make a living out of their craft.

“Immerse” Concert runs from 10th to 18th July 2021 online, as part of George Town Festival 2021. Tickets available here

George Town Festival 2021 runs from 10th to 18th July 2021. For more information, visit georgetownfestival.com or follow George Town Festival on Facebook and Instagram for the latest updates.

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