Raffles Symphonic Band: A Tempo XXVII

By Loh Su Jean (19A01A) and Ben Lim (19S03I)
Photos Courtesy of Amy Lin (19A01B) and Ku Cheng Yong of Raffles Photographic Society

“A Tempo” is Italian for “to the tempo”. This piece of musical vocabulary indicates that a musician should return to the original pace of a song. XXVII is the roman numeral for 27. This is the 27th time that Raffles Symphonic Band (RSB) has performed their annual concert, A Tempo,  the title is as fitting as ever. Individuals dazzled the audience, but in the moments when all sections were recollected and the ensemble performed with the full force of its members, we were nothing short of being spellbound.

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A quick photo before the concert

On the night of 25th May 2018, SOTA Concert Hall was buzzing with the unbridled enthusiasm of liberated students on the cusp of the June Holidays. As the performers took their positions on stage, cheers erupted from friends and family. It was evident that this was not the cold, formal, classical affair that classical music is often made out to be. It was a simply a time and place for music, friends, and family.

The concert kicked off with the ambitious Fantasy Variations on a Theme by Niccolo Paganini (arr. James Barnes). In this reimagination, the familiar, haunting tune was delivered with an unexpected jauntiness and military pomp. While this rendition lacked the plaintive quality of the original solo violin, the imaginative percussion and full sound created by the ensemble brought this famous piece to new heights. The highlight of the performance were the different variations that showcased every single instrumental section, giving us a rare peek into the mechanics of a modern wind band.

 

Petite Symphonie Movement 3 and 4: Scherzo and Finale by Charles Gounod, with its sweet melodies and clear construction, was a refreshing breath of fresh air.

From the ordered form of the Classical period, RSB took concertgoers to the tumultuous harmony of the Romantic period. Two Pieces for Trombone Quartet by Felix Mendelssohn (arr. Glenn Smith) was startling in its tenderness. The trombones and euphonium, capable earlier of such military proportions, were now impossibly gentle and evocative. The song moved between delicate harmonies and bright tones that resonated through the hall. We were enchanted. A beautiful performance – one that bore testament to the versatility of the brass instrument and cast the spotlight on those often relegated to the background.

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The thirteen member octet

Scaramouche for Clarinet Octet Movement 2: Modéré showcased the clarinet section. As the 13 performers took their positions on stage, their instruments formed a delightful image: arranged in increasing order of size, the clarinet section looked, quite literally, like a family. The piece opened delicately, with a clear melody on a single clarinet. As each performer joined in, the piece grew in range and complexity until a complete sound filled the hall. It was full, rich, and most amazingly, produced with only the clarinet.

The band came together once again in Mannin Veen by Haydn Wood. Forlorn, even bittersweet at times, this picturesque folk song drew the first half of the concert to a close.

Following the intermission, the flutes of RSB transported the concert-goers to the idyllic mountains of France. Jour D’été À La Montagne, Movement 1: Pastorale by Eugene Bozza was a delightful piece that evoked a peaceful, sun-basked countryside. Clear and sweet, it expressed longing for a time and place now gone.

Man-Mou for Saxophone Quintet by Nigel Wood started with a rich chromatic progression. The intertwining melodies that converged into variations of the original sequence were each in their own right, something special. The music held hints of a Cantonese opera, an indirect result of the composer fusing Western and Eastern music as a single entity.

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Saxophonists waiting for the next piece to begin

The entire band returned to perform Hymn of the Highlands Movement 1: Ardross Castle by Philip Sparke, a rather nuageux piece that had numerous crescendos and diminuendo which amplified the unity of the band. The bagpipe-like introduction unravelled into a dark staccato tune, providing a sense of urgency. As the music reached its denouement, the resolution of the piece was an unmistakable recapitulation of the same impressionistic beginning.

Next, drama! Turandot: A Selection from the Opera was without a doubt one of the highlights of the concert. Considered to be the greatest Italian opera in all of history, it takes place in Peking (now modern day Beijing), and follows the deaths of failed suitor Prince of Persia and Liu. We were plunged immediately into the conflict, left disoriented by a whirlwind of bold colours and high notes. Stately, palatial, and with an unmistakable Asian flair, the finale, when the cold Princess Turandot finally realises she loves Calaf – the very suitor she once hated – and declares her love for him, left us speechless. A tragedy turned love story, the work of Puccini lives to this day.

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One of two cute durian plushies given to Mr. Lim as a farewell present.

Composed for the Raffles Symphonic Band as a parting gift by conductor Derek Lim, Re-Storing Breath reminds both present and past members that music is not something mechanical and unfeeling. It is not sound alone, but the dedication and emotion placed in every note that give life to the meaningless dots and lines on sheet music. Warm, brassy, and mellow, it was clear that the band had heeded his words of advice. Fun fact: A portion of the Institution’s anthem is hidden within the polyphonic melodies of this velvety piece.

The evening’s programme closed with a personal favourite, With Heart and Voice by David Gillingham. This piece was as magnificent as it was eccentric. The dark and tension-filled introduction featured clarinets and flutes in ascending unison, before resolving with the piano’s reflective and subtle voice. Over the course of the performance, the piece gained momentum and became saturated with twisting harmonies that eventually culminated in a chromatic high. At a maximum of 144 beats-per-minute, any good performance of this technically challenging piece is a show of brilliance: and that was exactly what Raffles Symphonic Band brought to us.

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Percussionists hard at work during Bay Breeze

To no one’s surprise, the audience demanded an encore performance. RSB obliged, and delivered a stunning and riveting performance of Bay Breeze – a rhythmic piece that showed off the impeccable timing and precision of the percussion section. Rousing and spirited, it certainly got members of the audience bob their heads. One man was even seen energetically snapping his fingers to the beat of the music.

A Tempo XVII saw both the individual and the team in the limelight. The choice of repertoire allowed the band to showcase the virtuosity of each instrumental section. It was refreshing to see the often-overlooked percussion section given adequate time and space to stand out. And stand out they did – the imagination, flawless technique, and ease with which the percussionists pulled off their performance was truly exceptional.

As an ensemble, Raffles Symphonic Band showed us a very simple equation: When the individual’s strength is multiplied by the group’s commitment to musical excellence, the product is nothing short of the sublime. The curtain has fallen on A Tempo XXVII, but the spirit of A Tempo lives on. As the musicians of Raffles Symphonic Band pick up the pace in their individual endeavours, we wait expectantly for more enchanting performances. We will wait here, looking forward to the moment when the band comes together again, returning once more to A Tempo.

Repertoire

Fantasy Variations on a Theme by Niccolo Paganini (arr. James Barnes)
Petite Symphonie Movement 3 and 4: Scherzo and Finale (Charles Gounod)
Two Pieces for Trombone Quartet (Felix Mendelssohn, arr. Glenn Smith)
Scaramouche for Clarinet Octet Movement 2: Modéré (Darius Milhaud, arr. Kazuhiro Morita)
Mannin Veen (Haydn Wood)
Jour D’été À La Montagne Movement 1: Pastorale (Eugene Bozza)
Man-Mou for Saxophone Quintet (Nigel Wood)
Hymn of the Highlands Movement 1: Ardross Castle (Philip Sparke)
Turandot: A Selection from the Opera (Giacomo Puccini, arr. Yo Goto)
Re-Storing Breath (Derek Lim)
With Heart and Voice (David Gillingham)

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