A Tempo XXII: Band it like Beethoven

by Gao Wenxin (14A03A) and Nguyen Hoang Nhan (14S03K)
Photos by Chelsea Ng (Photographic Society)

ARTSeason 2013 is up and raring to go, and the Raffles Symphonic Band (RSB) opened it at the SOTA Concert Hall on Saturday with one of the first events of the season. In this edition of their annual concert titled A Tempo XXII: New/Classics, the band enthralled audiences with pieces that emphasised the importance of reinvention in music: several pieces drew inspiration from classics yet metamorphosed them into new compositions, while others challenged the concept of classical music being a dry sit-down affair. This occasion also marked the Asian premiere of the piece Extreme Beethoven and the composer himself, Mr Johan De Meij, was seated in the audience.

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The emcees for the night

“I wondered why the night was so dark, and then it dawned on me.” With the emcee’s quip, the concert began with the first piece Until The Day Dawns. It is composed by music teacher and RSB teacher-in charge Mr Derek Lim, one of our very own. A refreshing start to the evening, the buildup throughout the piece gave to an energetic finish, echoing the composer’s optimistic sentiment of perseverance despite obstacles, until the very end. Another impressionable piece was the Impressionistic Fantasy in French, definitely a romantic score that included works by French composers such Claude Debussy. The dream-like atmosphere was aided by the addition of unusual instruments, including a guest harp player from SOTA.

Extreme Beethoven was a programme highlight, and given the hype surrounding the premiere, the audience was not let down. Music aficionado Teh Jiun Harn gushed that it was a “very interesting version of the classic pieces that everybody knows from Beethoven, such as the scherzo and the first movement of the 5th symphony, the 9th symphony, the Moonlight Sonata, and the 7th symphony.” True enough, the composer intended to create an “extreme” version of Beethoven’s well known works, weaving them into an astonishing composition, paying tribute to the famous composer. However, what was even more surprising to the audience was that band members started leaving the stage in the middle of the piece, taking their instruments with them. What happened to all the trumpeters and percussionists?

The mystery was solved when the musicians emerged again from the back entrance of the hall, performing their instruments as they marched in. This small ensemble continued playing at the side of the stalls until the end of the piece, inviting cheers and even entertaining a dancing toddler seated to the side. RSB skillfully conveyed the novel concept of not just performing straight from the stage, but letting the audience (literally!) immerse themselves in the music. Even for a professional concert, there was a jovial atmosphere created by these rare moments.

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In an exclusive interview with Raffles Press, Mr Johan De Meij, who composed Extreme Beethoven, said that he was “very pleased” about the band’s performance of his work. “This was the Asian premiere and they did it very well. I was happy with the performance.” When asked about the concert he had praise for our band members, saying that it “had a lot of variety in the programming, and there were some fine soloists. I had an enjoyable evening.”

The second half opened with Elixir, a jazz-influenced piece performed with gusto, showing the strength of the band in a piece meant to celebrate musicians and their love for music. It contrasted with the next song, Sheltering Sky, a complex composition that showcased the softer, more melancholy side of classical music. Michelle Chan, a euphonium player, named it her favourite. “I liked the polyphony and the way the sounds blend. I like how it all had to be together, because if one instrument was a little bit off, it would sound wrong.” She also felt that the band performed very well despite difficulties during the dress rehearsal, and that it was “a good show”.

Of course, who could forget the soloists of the evening who gave us such enchanting performances? In Rhapsody for Euphonium, Tobby Satyarama gave a humble performance with the mellow sounds of the euphonium contrasting with the timbres of the rest of the band and held his own, creating a musical conversation between his instrument and other sections.

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Soloist Deepak Warrier

In a league of his own was the second soloist, Deepak Warrier, who helmed the German piece Immer Kleiner. The title translated to “Always Smaller” in English, but no one would have imagined that the title would so aptly describe the way the piece was to be performed! What started off as a serious performance took a more mischievous turn as Deepak began dismantling his instrument, and as the piece progressed the clarinet was taken apart again and again until it was no more than a very tuneful whistle. Deepak commented that the conductor had wanted him to perform something that involved both playing and acting, and jokingly said, “I did the acting part better than the performing part! It was a fun experience and the crowd apparently loved it.” The composition was itself very creative, but we agree that it was the soloist’s comic take that made audiences crack up.

A highly anticipated segment was the Les Misérables medley, familiar to many as the world’s longest-running musical and popularised by the recent Hollywood film. Under the baton of Vivian Goh, a student conductor, the medley transported us back in time to Victor Hugo’s 19th century France with Claude-Michel Schönberg’s score. From the crashing grandiose of the overture, the melancholic melodies of I Dreamed a Dream, to the revolutionary fervour of the June rebellion in Do You Hear The People Sing; the whole arrangement was artfully recreated. One of the writers felt that the heart-wrenching tunes played by the band packed the same emotional punch as it did when she saw the musical in London, and for the RSB to be up to par in performing this complex work was no mean feat.

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Student conductor Vivian Goh

To conclude the night, the last piece was Home, the most iconic of Singapore’s National Day Parade tunes. Unlike the softer original, this was a modernised symphonic version with a rocking saxophone solo! But it wasn’t the end of the night yet – audiences clamoured for an encore, and conductor Mr Adrian Tan appeared again for the band to perform a rousing American piece, Stars and Stripes.

By the end of the first encore, the crowd was still shouting for more, ignoring the emcees who had announced that it was really the end. And surprise, surprise! Mr Adrian Tan reappeared to say that he had decided to respond to an unusual second encore by performing a newly arranged Institution Anthem (which will hopefully replace the gaudy orchestrations we sing to during morning assembly in the near future). He reiterated that the band was under-rehearsed as sheet music was passed out on stage, but RSB was up to the task and performed to a chorus from the audience. The anthem, with the live accompaniment, was perhaps sung more meaningfully that night by the Rafflesians in attendance than our routine affair on the parade square.

In an interview with the conductor after the show, Mr Tan congratulated the band members. “They were great! They worked really hard to perform the music as it was really quite difficult, and today is an especially long day as they’ve been here since the afternoon. Rafflesians are very, very busy; they have to cope with their school work and other activities, and then they have to work on their music, which in itself could be a full time job! I’m actually very proud of them because they really came through very well, and the audiences look very excited.” It was indeed a successful performance by the RSB, culminating in a double encore and an enthusiastic response from the audience.

We noticed a peculiar tradition in the RSB – whenever there was occasion for applause, band members whose hands were occupied broke into drumroll by tapping the stage with their feet instead, creating a drumroll effect. Even for people like us who can’t tell their Beethoven’s Symphonies apart, we were moved by their sheer passion for performance, and for that, we offer the Raffles Symphonic Band the loudest of drumrolls indeed.

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