Sunday, 24 April 2011

SINGAPORE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA'S Readings of Singaporean Compositions


On a Good Friday (22 April 2011), one week after the passing of Singapore’s “Father of composers” Leong Yoon Pin, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra afforded Singaporean music a most magnanimous gift – a 3 hour reading of symphonic works by four Singaporean composers. It is no secret that the SSO does not perform enough Singaporean music. Its Composer-In-Residence scheme had come to an untimely demise, the New Music Forum suspended indefinitely, so this reading session – a first in its 32 year history - came as a most pleasant surprise.

Judging by what was heard, it amply demonstrated a wealth of creativity that exists in our small but gradually expanding composers’ circle. We have recently witnessed in concert short works by Yuan Peiying and Darrell Ang, but this reading session afforded more time and space for more extended compositions.

The first work performed lasted 17 minutes, the first movement of Tan Chan Boon’s Third Symphony “Eden” (2004). Hailed by SSO Music Director Lan Shui as “greatest Brucknerian outside of Linz”, Tan (above) has written four symphonies, none of which have been performed in their entirety here. Violas introduce the main theme, one which was to permeate the entire movement. String tremolos provided that Brucknerian murmur, accompanied by birdcalls reminiscent of Wagner’s Siegfried. There is a second soaring theme heard on violas and solo trumpet, but the serenity of the Garden darkens with dissonance from the brass, but before long a third theme, one resembling “Deep River” is heard. This is the very theme that appears in Tan’s symphonic prelude Cherish and piano work Reminiscence (both written in 2008). The movement ends in a reassuring A major chord. On the strength of this very coherent reading, one looks forward to hearing the whole work sometime soon.

Tan Chan Boon, Tey Mun Sen & John Sharpley (L to R)

John Sharpley, originally from Houston, Texas, but resident in Singapore for the last 25 years, was next. The choice was a duet (above) from his yet-to-be-produced opera Fences Of The Heart. Soprano Amanda Colliver and tenor Juan Jackson sang the parts of star-crossed lovers caught in the confusion of Singapore’s 1965 expulsion from Malaysia, and consequent independence. Make no mistake, this is an opera in English by an American composer, not some souped up melange that borrows from Malay, Chinese or Indian inspirations. Unapologetically tonal, this duet contains some of Sharpley’s most beautiful music, from its darkly coloured orchestral introduction to its resonant words “A hotel is not a home” (referring to the iconic Lion City Hotel at Tanjong Katong), which spelt the uncertainty of that period of Singapore history. Incidentally, the title of the opera also appears for the first (and perhaps only) time in this deeply felt movement. When this opera will be finally be produced remains to be seen.

Bernard Tan & Jun Zubillaga-Pow (Back) with Robert Yeo & Leow Siak Fah (Front)

After a short interval, Kelly Tang’s concertante work Tropicata, for violin and orchestra (above) was performed by soloist Xu Jueyi and the orchestra. Resembling a first movement of a violin concerto, all it lacks is an extended development and cadenza. It is nonetheless an impressive virtuoso showpiece, with opportunities for display although the dense orchestration sometimes gets in the way. Eclectic and neo-Romantic, it superficially resembles the first movement of Kabalevsky’s “Youth” Violin Concerto but with the Stars and Stripes feel of a Bernstein or Barber. Tang has already composed two piano concertos (one duodecaphonic and one jazz) and one quasi-violin concerto (two movements for re:mix), so could a full-fledged violin concerto be due soon?

The final work (above) was by the youngest composer of the four, Hoh Chung Shih, and also the most modern. Avant-garde it might have sounded, but Mountain Bright (Shan Ming) appears a more sophisticated conception than initially perceived. Its relentless swaths of sound, like viewing a vast expanse of hills, peaks and clouds (the vistas of China’s Huang Shan come to mind), is divided between two ensembles. The smaller consists of piano, percussion and cello in obbligato parts, pitted against vast orchestral forces. The work is at once immense, static (like clouds gently dispersing and revealing yet more clouds), minimalistic but strangely hypnotic despite its high decibel output. The ensemble stopped several times; did the players get lost, one wondered. Did they know what they were playing? It was all a very good natured experiment, no frayed nerves or ignited tempers, and they picked up where they left. The music ended as abruptly as it began.

If Leong Yoon Pin were present, he would have been proud of his juniors’ efforts, and the gesture of goodwill extended by the SSO. Bernard Tan, now inheriting the mantle of Singapore’s senior composer and instigator of this reading was present, and he was encouraged by this showing. Perhaps SSO reading the works of Singaporean composers should become an annual affair, a platform where the best of our talents can display their creative wares. Let us hope that is not too much to ask for from our national orchestra.

Shane Thio, Hoh Chung Shih & Kelly Tang (L to R)

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