By Andrew Atang Hidajat (17S03I)
“A Tempo” means “to the tempo”. It is an Italian musical phrase indicating that a musician should return to the original speed of playing after previously being commanded to alter it. The title of Raffles Symphonic Band’s (RSB) annual concert is fitting, given that it is always the same spirit of discovery and pursuit of musical excellence that drives the members to conquer seemingly insurmountable challenges in their musical journey. In place of the biennial Singapore Youth Festival (SYF), A Tempo has become one that allows them to grow musically in the process. Indeed, the love of music sustains them. It is the core of every value and ideal they hold dear. And they always aim to share it with the audience.
This year is no different. On the 27th May 2016, Victoria Concert Hall became the setting for a night of riveting performances, taking the audience on an emotional rollercoaster they will never forget. Mr Lim Yean Hwee (resident conductor) led the band for most pieces, with Professor Rodney Winther (guest conductor) and Priyadarshini (student conductor, 16A03A) taking over for Serenade, Op.7 and Riverdance respectively.
As the seats in the hall began to be occupied, the crowd buzzed with enthusiasm. Seeing the performers step onto the stage to take their positions led many to cheer for their friends. One could see that this was not the formal affair many think classical music to be. This was simply about music bringing together friends and family. The emcee’s introduction was followed by rapturous applause, and the adventure commenced.
The first piece was Four Scottish Dances by British composer Malcolm Arnold. Inspired by Scottish folk tunes and dances, it kicked off the concert with a festive mood. The explosive opening was followed by an animated tune repeated each time in a key a semitone higher. The clarinetists executed the running notes perfectly, and the oboists had a beautiful, round tone. The highlight of this piece is the bassoon solo that successfully brought out comic effect to the Scottish landscape being painted! In the final movement, Con brio (with vigour), the sound of bagpipes is imitated by the tone colours of saxophones and trombones, enhancing that image.
From the captivating sceneries of Scotland, RSB took concertgoers to the streets of New York City – the setting of West Side Story, a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s iconic Romeo and Juliet. The themes of gang rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, as well as forbidden love between Tony (of the Jets) and Maria (of the Sharks), were clearly expressed in Symphonic Dances from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein.
Prologue, its famous saxophone opening, immediately set the tone for the piece, as a haunting melody described the terrifying confrontation between the two gangs. The actual use of whistles to signify the arrival of policemen into the scene was incredibly creative. What was even more impressive was how the same musician played the English horn and oboe solos impeccably, alternating between the two instruments. The expressive dynamics used helped to tell the tale in the most gripping way, as members shouted “Mambo” (the name of the movement) in between musical phrases.
As if it wasn’t already compelling enough, RSB’s very own Tony (Allard Quek, 17S06G) and Maria (Nadirah Lim, 16S03P) stood up and acted out some lines from the play very convincingly. The flute solo showcased the flautists’ masterful technique as they executed vibrato perfectly. In Cool, the muffled trumpets foreshadowed the upcoming battle as the Jets practice – in vain – to control their hostility. The escalation towards the climax was brilliantly instant, highlighting the gangs’ deep-seated hatred towards one another. The final, lethal fight between the gangs in Rumble was the climax of this piece. A mournful theme then illustrates his death in her arms, ended by a poignant, unresolved tritone chord. It symbolises the love that never was.
After the crowd erupted into applause, Professor Winther introduced himself, revealing to the audience that A Tempo XXV was his conducting debut in Singapore. Serenade, Op. 7 by Walther Lampe involved only the wind ensemble of RSB, yet the music was no less powerful. The piece opened gently, with harmonies and warm, bright tonal colours that resonated through the hall. The unique tone of the oboe consistently stood out – an opportunity for the stellar oboist, Priyadarshini herself, to really shine! The second movement had a more cheery start. The melody and accompaniment were perfectly synchronised, showing the practiced harmony of a united ensemble. At the end, Professor Winther was presented with a token of appreciation, which was none other than the Raffles black polo!
Following the intermission was Riverdance by Bill Whelan. If the first piece was about Scotland and the second set in New York, this one exposed the audience to Irish music and culture. The first of the four movements began with a haunting soprano saxophone solo. It was skillfully played, with the saxophonist intentionally going “flat” to achieve the effect of Ireland’s bewitching landscape. The drastic drop in pitch demanded the player to instantly adjust his embouchure, jaw and diaphragm all at once, but he made it seem effortless. The second movement mainly focussed on the brasses, with lyrical themes and calming melodies that emphasised the feminine qualities of the Irish landscape.
Then, darkness surrounded us all. Literally. In the movement Thunder and Lightning, 5 percussionists became a group of traditional male dancers, tapping out unison rhythms using glowing drumsticks which lit up when hit on a surface. A soloist set the tempo, while the others responded to the rhythm thereafter. It was pure genius. One could tell that no one had expected something so un-classical, yet so gloriously spellbinding. The exhilarating finale involved the timpani’s energetic and powerful passage. This culminated in a dramatic, final note. Riverdance certainly felt like an orchestral soundtrack for an adventure-themed movie!
Bugler’s Holiday by Leroy Anderson was truly exceptional. The band became the accompaniment for three solo trumpeters, namely Brandon Julian Wong (16S06G), Sean Ng Shan Sheng (17S06B) and Quek Yu Chern (16S06B). The standard bugle calls and bugle-call-like figures that the piece revolve around show how highly meticulous the orchestration is. It is astonishing how they were able to keep up with the tongueing required for the solo parts, which consisted of short, staccato notes played in a fast tempo.
The evening’s programme closed with Highlights from Chess by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus. Chess is a musical, telling the story of a politically driven Cold War-era chess tournament between an American grandmaster (“The American”) and a Soviet grandmaster (“The Russian”), in their competition to earn the affection of a woman called Florence. The grand introductory theme highlighted the epicness of the situation and the high stakes involved in the tournament.
In the movement Chess, a doleful clarinet solo treats the audience to a rich and melodious theme that sounded so beautifully sorrowful. The Russian declared his allegiance to his country as nationalistic themes were expressed vividly in the strong dynamics used. An emotional oboe solo, followed by subsequent trumpet solos and brass-dominant melodies were supported by the chimes, signalling the end drawing nearer still. As the trumpets produced a final, bright shrill note, one realises that if there was only one word used to describe the climax of this piece, it would be majestic.
To no one’s surprise, the audience demanded for an encore performance. RSB obliged, playing a rhythmic traditional Japanese tune – “Soran Bushi” heavily featuring the saxophones. The audience clapped along and cheered “hey” repeatedly towards the end. With a powerful fortissimo (ff), the band concluded the concert explosively, just like how they opened the first piece. As the meaning of “A Tempo” suggests, RSB always returns to the beginning.
And it all started right after Bandemonium IV, their annual December concert, ended in 2015 – about 30 minutes later, to be exact, according to Priya. Since then, Mr Lim and the entire band reconsidered the final repertoire countless times, only confirming it “about a month” before the concert. Mr Lim usually has a certain theme in mind, aiming to generate a diverse range of pieces with various “musical styles”, from “a single, overarching theme”. The result was an excellent mix of both band “classics” (Four Scottish Dances, Highlights from Chess, Riverdance are all well known in the band world) and demanding pieces, such as Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.
The choice of repertoire was not the only concern. The musicians spent long, gruelling hours honing their skills and familiarizing themselves with the dynamics and phrasing of each piece not only during rehearsals, but also during sectionals with tutors and their own free time.
… one realises that if there was only one word used to describe the climax of this piece, it would be majestic.
RSB never hesitates to push past their limits and experiment with new approaches to music, says Secretary and Saxophone Section Leader Jia Qi (16A01D). Saga Salim (16S06P) added that no other JC band would attempt the kind of repertoire they did this time. Though intonation, understanding of the music’s story and cohesion leave some room for improvement, there is no denying that RSB gave a sublime performance. As Priya said, “they have come miles from where they started off”. Most importantly, they have “grown closer in all those long afternoons spent in the cozy band room and post-practice dinners.”
As the curtain falls on A Tempo XXV, we sincerely look forward to more divine performances by RSB – those that remind us of its commitment to musical excellence. Those that embody the idea of A Tempo.