MPO review: Gripping moods, ethereal moments and mysterious yearnings

On 5th Nov, 2021 the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra premiered three Malaysian works as part of its Malaysian composers chamber series made in collaboration with MCC. The series would see nine works premiered throughout the month of November.

The first work premiered was Jessica Cho’s Edge of Lunacy, which deals with the dark subject of mental illness.

Writes Cho, “This piece depicts the moods of one who is descending into madness. Mental illness is a frightening condition, where one has confused thoughts and extremely high and low moods. Those afflicted are also prone to long-lasting irritability or sadness. The composer wrote this work after encountering such a case. The flute represents the character suffering from this illness, hence the solo section for the flute.

“The moods in the piece derive from the various states of the descent. There are episodes of confused thoughts as though different people are saying different things to you, distracting the train of thought, as the three instruments in the piece do.

“Elsewhere, there are moments of dizzy activity moving left and right. The emotions can rise to screaming, crying or other desperate sounds, but also sink into moments of calm. However, these extreme contrasts, like a person at the edge of madness, are erratic and you can never predict what will happen next.”

Flautsist Ignacio de Nicolas Gaya, cellist Seulki Lee and pianist Akiko Dani┼í, led by conductor Gerard Salonga, played the work with great sensitivity, evoking the alternatively dark and frenzied images painted by Cho with mastery and excellent ensemble work, the flute, cello and piano working a taut reading of the composer’s score, bringing to full bloom the many colours and layers of the music.

Next, the MPO harp and viola duo gave a delightful performance of Tai Yun Ming’s Frizzy Crystals Frozen Clouds, a two-movement work that explores a wealth of sounds from the two instruments and the wonderful interplay between them.

Based on the imagery of frozen clouds and ice crystals, Tan says it’s a metaphor for her feelings of “being far from home, and being unable to return", due to the Covid pandemic.

“The sound world has two main elements – fast micro movements of trills, tremolos and bisbigliando unique to the viola and harp as well as the buzzy and woody effects; clear, ringing sound from the bowed and plucked harmonics. The duo collectively contributes to the 'frizzy' and 'crystal-like' texture of the unlikely imagery of cloud ice,” writes Tan.

The conversation between the harpist Tan Keng Hong and the violist Juan Sebastian was wonderfully dreamy at places, elsewhere plaintive and desolate, and playful in the final fast section.

The third piece in the first set was Rayner Naili’s Nunuk Ragang, inspired by a legend that has echoed in Sabahan culture for many generations.

“Nunuk (banyan) ragang (red) or the red banyan tree in English, is a red giant tree that once sheltered a few families that is eventually known as the first settlement in the land. The composition's idea involves the structure of the tree and its main characteristics such as its red colour and its strangler figs,” writes Naili.

Salonga led the string ensemble in an exciting reading, bursting forth with the cacophony of strings that open the piece, before settling into a mysterious pizzicato section that melts into and alternates with a series of portamenti and a final, impassioned chorale that brims with an unbearable sense of yearning.

The three composers who kick of the series all wrote masterful works that bear the unique stamp of Malaysian music at its most diverse. 

Most notable, however, was the youngest composer of the series, Tan, still a student at Yong Siew Toh Conservatory in Singapore, who at this juncture has produced such a mature, thoughtful work that explored the instruments to their fullest, and was able to weave technique into a beautiful and emotionally multi-layered work. Surely she has a great future in store!

Meanwhile Cho and Naili continued to push their technique and musical language further, Cho delivering a piece that is sensitive and beautifully articulated as always, and Naili becoming more assured of his voice as a young composer with his latest piece.

- reviewed by C H Loh 2021

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