Tuesday 23 April 2024

IN HARMONY 41: COLOURS / SAF Central Band / Review


SAF Central Band 
Esplanade Concert Hall 
Sunday (21 April 2024) 

It’s been ages since I last attended a wind band concert. The Philharmonic Winds used to be my fix until it lost National Arts Council major grant funding sometime pre-pandemic. I was thus happy to be reacquainted with wind band music through the Singapore Armed Forces Central Band in its annual concert In Harmony. It's very well-attended 41st edition at Esplanade Concert Hall was led by director of music ME5 Ignatius Wang and renowned British conductor Douglas Bostock. 

I had been reminded that the SAF Central Band is Singapore third largest full-time professional orchestra, after the Singapore Symphony and Singapore Chinese Orchestras. Its history actually predates the other two, having origins as a British army ensemble dating from 1958, one year before Singapore achieved internal self-government. Its first band masters were British, but local conductors who led the outfit since were trained in the United Kingdom, graduates of the Royal Military Music colleges. All its members are professional musicians, and this concert was further augmented by some familiar names from the Singapore Symphony and local classical music scene. 

First timers to wind band concerts will be pleasantly surprised to learn that the repertoire – a parallel universe running alongside the classical scene – does not consist of just military marches or ceremonial music, but encompasses music worthy of any serious concert stage. This evening’s offerings were proof of that. 

The concert’s first half was led by the young and charismatic Ignatius Wang, looking spiffy in ceremonial military uniform with full regalia, mirroring the orchestra’s equally smart turnout. Zubir Said’s National Anthem Majulah Singapura opened the evening, followed by Kenneth Hesketh’s Masque (2000), which began life as a Scherzo for orchestra. Right away, the orchestra unfurled its wide range of colours with pin-point articulation and warmth of sonority. The dynamism and cinematic quality of this short overture was reminiscent of the best of John Williams. 

Frank Ticheli’s Lux Perpetua (2020) was next, a heart-felt elegy in memory of two close friends tragically lost in an auto accident. Fragmentary strains of tuned percussion in high registers are heard over a background of brass chorales straining to emerge. Emanating warmth at each turn, the music would gain in pace and volume, transforming into the blazing eternal light of its title, before a gentle and quiet close. The band’s radiant reading was a touching tribute. 

Spanish composer Ferrer Ferran’s Red Dragon (2008) opened with a crash not unlike the Danse Infernale from Stravinsky’s Firebird, following which would be the concert’s most dissonant music. Snarling brass with woodwind murmurings of disquiet colour this portrait of feral and brutish invincibility, as personified in the dragon. One will be forgiven for thinking that the driving rhythmic ostinatos bringing the work to a savage close would also be totally at home in The Rite of Spring. With this, the virtuosity of the players is undisputed. 

The second half was conducted by Douglas Bostock, a well-known figure in both international symphonic orchestral and wind band circles. David Bedford’s Sun Paints Rainbows on the Vast Waves (1984) fully exploited all possible timbres of the instruments by displaying a dazzling array of textures and figurations. Its idiom is somewhat minimalist, referring to the minute changes in spectral wavelengths as the music evolved, but also impressionist, bringing to mind the sound worlds of Debussy and Ravel. 

The orchestra was augmented with cellos, harp and piano in Philip Sparke’s A Colour Symphony (2014) which closed the concert proper. Here, colours represented in its five movements are equated with varied moods and temperaments. White opened with a horn solo, and the ensemble soon established a milieu of harmony and happiness with its reassuring musings. Yellow was scherzo-like and playful, its modal (verging on pentatonic) melody resembling a Vaughan Williams folksong arrangement. 

Blue was scored for woodwinds, harp and piano, a slow movement with a gospel vibe, not unlike chorales sung in small-town churches of heartland America. Red for brass and percussion was volatile and choleric, an incessant snare-drum beat providing the driving impetus. Finally, Green symbolising all that is good with Mother Earth gave this very accessible and enjoyable symphony a vibrant and vivacious conclusion. 

Bostock and the band had two encores up their collective sleeves. Derek Bourgeois’s joyful little Serenade, with pianist and harpist “goofing off” (all in good-hearted fun) until the final cadence, was followed by a delicious piece of Graingeriana in Philip Sparke's Garboldisham Jig from Four Norfolk Dances

This marvelously presented and very enjoyable concert, with tickets free of charge for all comers, was not just the perfect advertisement for wind band music, but for music itself.

All band leaders have a sense of fun!

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