Monday, January 24, 2005

(M) September 19, 2003 - All For Love, Dama Orchestra

Goodness. It’s September already – where has the time gone? Some of the good old days have apparently gone into Love Without End, a golden era production re-enacted by home-grown Dama Orchestra, which is being staged from today till Monday.

And taking time into my hands, I chose to immerse myself in a sneak-peek of Chinese Cinema, Old Shanghai and yesteryear divas at Istana Budaya in Kuala Lumpur. As I entered the auditorium, I could almost imagine myself in a cheongsam, unexpectedly blending into the periodic set and the strains of the Shi Dai Qu (Chinese golden oldies) music. This is Dama’s biggest production ever – even grander in scale than the one staged in China at the Majestic Theatre in Shanghai.

The era of the 1920s to 1960s would never be the same without music. So great was the influence of Shi Dai Qu that the character and colour it added to the era were irreplaceable. From the entertainment scene and nightclubs of Shanghai the music made it’s way into the movies with signature tunes to take the audience on a journey of love, romance, heartache and heartbreak.

Love Without End pays tribute to the famous Chinese divas and movie stars from the golden age of Mandarin cinema, when musical scores and songs were simply exquisite.

The theme, Love Without End, taken from a movie title of the late 50s, was chosen for several reasons. It had won Lin Dai the Best Asian Actress Award for one of the most famous roles she had ever held in her acting career. It has a typical melodramatic storyline where a country girl goes to the big city, sings in a nightclub to support her boyfriend but in the end, dies of cancer. Underlying the tragic story is the moral of love and sacrifice, one that Dama Orchestra is going through after the flood, for the love and passion of its music. Plus, the theme song in the movie (which shares the same title) is one of the best love songs ever from that era.

The selection of songs strung together should, first of all, be nice to hear. According to music director and producer Khor Seng Chew, he listened to hundreds of songs and lyrics in order to bring together a sensible story with good flow.

The performance is deliberately split into two acts to show the contrast and variety in Chinese music.
Autumn Moon, the first act, has folk-based music. The instrumentation – consisting of pipa, zhong ruan, erhu, dizi, yang qing and san xian – is purely Chinese.

The stage is aptly set in the countryside. In the background are the peaceful mist-blanketed mountains of China framed by fringes of rich foliage.

While the orchestra is playing, the mimed drama unfolds with carefree, braided, teenage girls at leisure, entertaining themselves with games. Then we see the protagonist, portrayed by Tan Soo Suan, as she sings along with the orchestra, falls in love and enters into courtship.

Some of the instrumental pieces that you will hear in this act are Fragrance of White Orchid (music by Jin Gang), I Need No Matchmaker (music by Yao Min), and Duan Chang Hong Flower (music by Zhuang Hong). Tan sings seven songs in this act – some of the more notable ones are Girl at Eighteen is Like a Flower (originally sung by Liu Yun) and Yue Tao Flower (originally sung by Yao Li).

Just like the simple country life, these songs exude a certain liveliness and naivety. The dizi (flute) plays a key role in imitating the sounds of nature such as the chirping of birds.

In contrast, the second act, entitled Evening Star, is more contemporary and is set against the grand musical halls of Old Shanghai’s nightclubs. One can immediately see the foreign influence in the music with the introduction of the piano, guitar and the Western flute. The two Chinese instruments maintained are the erhu and sheng. The tunes of the songs are also more Western.

The hall would not be complete without the pretty and sophisticated-looking girls in cheongsam, four-inch heels, and hair adorned with a single flower, dancing away with gentlemen in black suits and bow ties. The glamorous Tan makes a grand appearance with all the glitterati of a showgirl.

Evening Star, which starts off with the theme song, Love Without End (originally sung by Gu Mei), also combines instrumental and vocal pieces.

Artistic and creative exploration is an on-going process for Dama Orchestra even in its sixth production of Shi Dai Qu. Coming to 10 years now, the orchestra has reached yet another level of maturity, experience and knowledge. Even Tan has found her own style, which has a flavour of Shi Dai Qu.

In the whole production, it is evident that Dama’s understanding of music and vocalisation is well articulated, and that every component of the orchestra works well in complementing each other.

It pays to stop and smell the roses. So do take time to catch Dama Orchestra’s grandest production, Love Without End, with your loved ones this weekend. There is much to be enjoyed.

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