Chinese Orchestra ‘18: Cascade

By Wong Zi Yang (19A01D) and Nicole Chan (19S05A)
Photos courtesy of Raffles Photographic Society

If you were to mention ‘Chinese’ to anyone, the likely response would be one of disgust, such as ‘ew, no need take Chinese already lah!’

So what would one expect for the turnout at a Chinese Orchestra concert? Surprisingly, quite a large one. Raffles Institution Chinese Orchestra’s ‘Cascade’, performed on 4th May at the Singapore Chinese Orchestra Hall, enriched the night with soulful music.

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The orchestra performing the first piece, The Dragon Boat Race.

After a quick introduction, the conductor, Mr Yang Jiwei, hopped on stage enthusiastically to begin the performance. If members of the audience were tired after a long day of work, the first song would have woken them right up. The Dragon Boat Race was an extremely explosive opening which perfectly captured the spirit of dragon boating. The percussions were especially heavy in this song, perfectly the regular beat from the lead drummer and synchrony required of a dragon-boating team. The lively beat of the song was met with uproarious applause, adequately hyping up the audience for the following songs.

Standing in stark contrast to The Dragon Boat Race, the next piece, Ballad of the Waves began calmly, evoking the sense of peace and relaxation felt during a stroll at the beach. The smooth transition from the vigour of the first piece to the tranquility of the second highlighted the ease with which the orchestra handled different genres. This piece was particularly mesmerising, with the rhythmic movements of the orchestra evoking the image of a well-oiled machine, a testament to their long hours of practice.

The third piece, Aksara (अक्षर, pronounced “akshara”), or “syllable”/”letter” (of an alphabet), was the first of a series of pieces that shifted the spotlight onto specific sections of the orchestra, allowing each section to shine.

Even before it was performed, conductor Mr Yang Jiwei highlighted the uniqueness of a Chinese orchestra playing a piece inspired by Sanskrit poetry, one of many examples of the flexibility of the orchestra. This piece in particular focused on the percussion, suona, sheng, and dizi sections, and added a fresh twist to the music one would expect from a Chinese orchestra. One aspect of the performance that particularly stood out was the chanting of excerpts from Sanskrit poems, which matched the pounding rhythm of the percussion-driven piece. The members who participated in this performance had put in effort to get the pronunciation right, enlisting the help of ex-Rafflesian Mr Advay Sudarshan.

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Selected sections of the orchestra performing Aksara, a piece inspired by Sanskrit poetry.

With the audience excited and riled up from the fast-paced Aksara, the next two pieces served as a breather from the intensity of the previous one. Tuesday Gathering, focusing on the zhongruan, pipa, guzheng, and bangdi sections, contrasted the previous piece in tempo. Staying true to its theme of a leisurely gathering of friends, the song was mellow and relaxing- by now, the audience had picked up on the pattern of the pieces alternating between a fast tempo and slow pace.

Por Una Cabeza, or Spanish for ‘by a head’, was performed by Koh Yin Jie (18S03Q) and Seah Qi Yan (18S06J) playing the erhu, Elijah Chew (18S06B) playing the gaohu and Yeoh Lik Hern (18S06K) on the piano. This performance was another example of how the orchestra masterfully infused traditional Chinese music with music from other cultures; the piece had originally been written by Carlos Gardel as a tango. This wonderful piece, too, was met with enthusiastic applause from the audience.

Following the intermission, the concert shifted the spotlight onto soloists, allowing them to showcase their virtuosity. There were two solos: a yangqin solo, Song of the Great Gorge, performed by Gao Tianrun (19S02A) and accompanied by pianist Chua Zhe Xuan (an alumnus), as well as a dizi solo, Oasis, by James Ding (18S06S) and accompanied by pianist Leo Tan (18S06S).

The expertly played solo songs brought the audience’s attention back from the short intermission- Song of the Great Gorge transitioned from a fast, light beat into a gradually slowing melody, with the piano creating graceful undertones that enhanced the awe-inspiring composition. Oasis, a solo by a woodwind instrument, had sharp refreshing sounds followed by a rousing piano-flute tune reminiscent of the serenity of a oasis, a cut above the mere calmness of a mellow tune. Both their skill and passion were apparent from their stunning performances; both performers gave everything they had in a breathtaking rendition of their pieces.

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Yangqin soloist Gao Tianrun performing Song of the Great Gorge with finesse.

The next piece, The Sisters’ Islands by Singaporean composer and Raffles alumnus Wang Chenwei, also served to highlight the skills of two zhongruan soloists, Chua Rui Yi (18S03I) and Wong Yu Xian (an alumnus), but this time against the backdrop of the rest of the orchestra. The performance was a rollercoaster of emotions, a vivid retelling of a Malay folktale through music. The insertion of sound effects throughout the piece was also a pleasant surprise, with clever usage of special percussion instruments to mimic the sound of waves and footsteps through sand. This made for a more immersive experience for the audience, allowing them to truly lose themselves in the music and imagine the story as told through the music come to life before their eyes. This performance was understandably received well, hyping the audience up for the final piece.

Unlike some of the other pieces performed that night, The Legend of Shandi-Er did not start off with a bang, instead slowly building up from a quietly grand opening. Following the story of a popular composer and folk-song singer who was killed by the Qing government in China, the piece achieved a balance between the fast-paced and the mellow, combining a deep and broad tone with delicate melodies. While not loud enough to rattle one’s bones, the song had an understated power which kept the audience enthralled. Furthermore, this piece was a challenging one; at the end, the conductor revealed that the orchestra was the first JC orchestra in Singapore to attempt this concendo, speaking volumes of the expertise required of the orchestra to pull it off.

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The orchestra plays The Legend of Shandi-er in what we thought was the last song of the night.

Just when the audience was ready to pack their things up and leave with the experience of a night of beautiful music, there was one more surprise in store. The orchestra had prepared an encore, a medley of instantly recognizable pop songs, including Too Good at Goodbyes (Sam Smith), Havana (Camila Cabello), Rewrite the Stars (from The Greatest Showman), and Perfect (Ed Sheeran). One would not expect traditional Chinese instruments to be able to perform modern pop songs successfully, yet the orchestra delivered once again, proving that traditional Chinese music can mesh well with a variety of genres.

If there was one word that could be used to characterize Cascade, it would be “versatility”. Rather than sticking to the usual fare one might hear at other concerts or Lunar New Year performances, the orchestra experimented with a diversity of styles and genres, as well as put creative spins on the pieces to truly make the pieces their own.

The pieces also allowed the orchestra to shine both as an ensemble and as individuals during the sectional and solo performances. Overall, it was a well-planned and well-executed production that could only have been borne out of hours of hard work and dedication, and hopefully left the audience intrigued to find out more.


List of performers

Gaohu
Chew Shaun Young, Elijah
Grace Chew
Ng Rui Jun

Zhonghu
Ng Tze Ho
Li Ze Hua

Erhu I
Koh Yin Jie
Chong Wei Ming
Tan Rae Chyl Kaley
Lee Han Wei
Yeo Ning Xin, Camine
Yang Hui Ting

Erhu II
Seah Qi Yan
Yeoh Lik Hern
Keane Ong Junxian
Hu Junjie
Ma Fanghe

Gaoyin Sheng
Li Peiyao
Jordan Lee Jiexin

Diyin Sheng
Tan Wei Qi Emily
Law Wing Sum

Cizhongyin Sheng/ Hailuo
Ng Yu Fei

Gaoyin Suona
Chen Yuanqi
Yao Ze Yu
Wu Si Da

Zhongyin Suona
Ang Kai Jun
Ang Wee Kiat

Dizi
James Ding Sinuo
Gao Heng
Eugene Lee Zong Ze
Sunaga Shion
Ng Xin Zhe, Sean
Ton Xin Ying
Wan Qianxi
Tan Yan Quan
James Kartadinata

Percussion
Ong Tjun Jet
Franklin Yoong Tuck Yan
Ong Hui Juan
Ian Lim Jing Yan
Chia Wen Jun, Marcus
Gu Jiawen
Qian Xiaohan
Crystal Cheong

Cello
Chen Ximin
Loo Yu Hao
Soon Wei Ze
Ow Zhong Hao
Xu Zixin
Zhao Wenrui
Yu Chuan
Tang Wai Yong

Double Bass
Cai Yi Zhan
Lee Zi Xuan
Jovan Leong Jin Hoong
Cheng Wentuo
Zhao Yufan

Liuqin
Chua Rui Yi
Wong Yu Xian

Zhongruan/Liuqin
Wilson Tan Yi Xuan

Zhongruan
Darryll Chong Quan Wei
Li Ming Yang
Lu Shaoqin
Deng Huaiyu

Daruan
Zhao Jiahong

Pipa
Wayne Zhang Si Yuan
Sim Xin Ni Clodia
Chen Xinyu

Yangqin
Gracia Goh
Gao Tianrun
Tng Fang Ying
Ong Wan Qi

Guzheng
Zhai Chen Lu
Feng Min

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