Blow Us All Away—A Tempo XXVIII: Britannia

By Jerome Tay (20S06Q) and Ng Jing Ting (20A13A)
Photos courtesy of Geng Heqin (20S06S) and Xanelle Tan (20S03M) of Raffles Photographic Society

“When you think of music…the last thing you’d think of is your school band, no name, no glam and zero monies.” This tongue-in-cheek self-introduction by Raffles Symphonic Band (RSB), which featured in this year’s edition of CCA Previews, could not have inspired more incredulity from audience members who were present on the night of A Tempo XXVIII. Held on 24 May 2019 at Victoria Concert Hall, RSB’s annual concert veered away from the typical narrative of mediocre showmanship and esoteric tunes to promise an evening of exceptional musicianship and heart-warming (occasionally heart-wrenching) melodies.

The concert opened with Shared Space by Ivan Trevino: this piece saw members of RSB’s percussion section crowding around a lone glockenspiel, each wielding a set of mallets and striking its silver keys in tandem with one another. Several members of the section then dispersed towards the marimba, its mellow peals soon becoming entwined with the keen tinkling of the glockenspiel. In the semi-darkness of the concert hall, the resulting melody resounded piercingly, almost eerily—it keened and crooned alternatingly to an audience silent with rapt attention. Nigel Heng (19S06G) joined in on the cajón, and the ensemble was complete. The melody persisted with heightened intensity, interspersed with the hypnotic beats of the cajón. All too soon, the piece came to an end with a final, haunting chord struck on the glockenspiel, and the audience, as though awakened from a fever dream, cheered and clapped enthusiastically for their friends onstage.

Next, members from the various brass sections came together to grace the stage with a performance of Victor Ewald’s Brass Quintet No. 3 in D-flat Major. It was immediately apparent from its initial bars that this piece—in all its melodic jauntiness—was to stand in stark contrast with the previous hush of Shared Space.

Ensemble members take their bow.

Extensive banter took centre stage next as emcees Luke Chua and Pan Liyu played for time while the stagehands frantically set up the stage for the appearance of the entire band. Eventually, band members emerged from backstage to commence the performance of Toccata Marziale by Ralph Vaughan Williams, with Mr Lim Yean Hwee helming the role of conductor. As they settled into the rows of chairs under the glaring stage lights, screams of glee could be heard from the audience, with a particularly loud holler of “Let’s go, Bridget!” piercing through the tumult. The toccata refers to “a baroque musical composition with full chords and rapid elaborate runs in a rhythmical freestyle”—true to its name, Toccata Marziale proceeded at lightning pace. To get a sense of the lightning pace at which the piece was moving, one only had to look at the quick-moving fingers of double bassist Joel Yap (19S07B) that flitted almost maniacally up and down the fingerboard of his instrument. Section-mate and tubist Su Yishan (19S07B) admitted that she faced challenges in “playing consecutive quavers at a fast tempo”, adding that “the pieces for this concert were especially difficult”.

Following the toccata was Yiddish Dances by Adam Gore. A rather more lyrical piece that brought in traditional elements of Yiddish music, the exoticism of the culture it celebrated was further emphasised by the hand-drum that the percussion section carried onstage, which was played with the accompaniment of clapping by the rest of the section. Several solos also featured in this piece, including clarinet, trumpet, trombone, saxophone and flute solos. The piece concluded with a fast passage meant to mimic the pace of the raucous dancing it was set to, finally ending with a thunderclap-like boom of the bass drum before the audience was ushered out of the hall for a fifteen-minute intermission.

Guess who! One of the emcees assumes a haughty pose
befitting a gentleman of means.

With just enough time to take a breath, audience members returned to the hall and excitedly waited for the next segment to begin. Starting off the second half of the concert was a performance by RSB’s saxophone section of Quick Motion composed by Rika Ishige. Featuring three short movements, it called for great synergy between the musicians as the melody was passed quickly from one ensemble player to another. The section’s performance proceeded seamlessly (and astonishingly) without the need for a conductor as section members cued in their own entrances with sharp breaths punctuated by assured flicks of their heads. The audience was treated to the exhilarating first and third movements of Ishige’s composition and savoured the heart-wrenching sorrow of the second one that proved a drastic change in mood. As adeptly as they had started, the section ended off in perfect unison and made their way offstage to prepare for the next item.

The saxophone section with Quick Motion.

Next up was Sweet Sunset by Dutch composer Jan De Haan, conducted by student conductor Alex Su (19S06C). Featuring a solo clarinet backed by the calming accompaniment of the band, the wistful tunes of Sweet Sunset called to mind simpler and happier times. One of the two overall members-in-charge of the concert, Sebastian Fok (19S06G) took centre stage as the soloist, dazzling the audience with his confidence and virtuosity. The smooth, mellow sound of the band painted an idyllic picture of a setting sun against the backdrop of a flushed, scarlet sky; the varying moods conveyed by the solo clarinet indicated a corresponding darkening of the sky as dusk eventually sets in—from a bright afternoon fuchsia to a soft cerulean blue, and finally purple and black. Sebastian later revealed that it was during this piece that he experienced his most goosebump-inducing moment. “It was my first time ever playing such a big solo piece and it was nerve-wracking playing for so many people,” he said, “but this was also my best moment of the concert, where I could be proud of my sound and play my heart out.” His passion appeared to have got through to audience members, who applauded and cheered their hearts out in celebration of the talented soloist.

Sebastian Fok (19S06G) takes on the role as solo clarinetist.

Continuing under the baton of Alex, the following piece was Selections from Starlight Express arranged by Jerry Nowak. With melodies taken from compositions by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, this piece served to delight Broadway fans, especially those acquainted with the composer’s more renowned works such as Phantom of the Opera and Cats. Despite Starlight Express being one of his most obscure works, this piece was an absolute pleasure to listen to. Peppered with thrillingly fast passages and at times even dripping with exaggerated pathos, Selections from Starlight Express told the tale of Rusty, a young but obsolete steam engine that races against modern engines in the hopes of impressing the love of his life—a first-class carriage. (You read that right.) This classic Cinderella story mirrored every romantic comedy that had come before it, paralleling the standard tropes of desire, heartbreak, and finally reconciliation. The band seamlessly combined elements of romance and rock ‘n’ roll together to mimic the sounds of automation, its upbeat tunes prompting audience members to clap along. Before the commencement of their last piece, resident conductor Mr Lim Yean Hwee was invited back onstage and presented with a bouquet of flowers as a symbol of gratitude from his protégés on stage.

Thanks, Mr Lim.

Having finished thanking the various groups of people that had made the concert possible, the emcees took to the stage once again to introduce Year of the Dragon as the final piece of their repertoire, a rousing piece with stark variances in mood, tempo and volume. Composed by Philip Sparke, the musical versatility that could be found in Year of the Dragon proved to be truly reflective of RSB’s outstanding musicianship. One for the history books, the three movements of the piece conveyed vastly different moods. Commencing with the grandiose of the first movement, Toccata, RSB “gave literal chills” to the audience. The second and longest movement, Interlude, featured a gloomy start before blooming with tints of optimism. The tension built up till the climax of the song, when, to the surprise of the audience, the band members put their instruments down—and started singing. The concert hall was filled with astonished silence as the band members’ soulful and emotional singing permeated within its walls: the pride of every performer at the months of hard work leading up to that moment could be felt in the pure energy of their voices. Having sent the entire audience into an appreciative daze, the third movement began amidst lingering silence. Entitled Finale (a suiting choice for the denouement passage), the music evolved with a steadily-growing intensity and exploded with a triumphant finish. And the audience cheered—loudly and raucously, for music, the universal language, had spoken to every one of them that evening.

Met with frantic cries of “Encore, encore!”, RSB launched into one last piece for the evening. A familiar set of melodies to anyone who actively listens to the blues, Deep Purple Medley, arranged by Toshihiko Sahashi and frequently played by bands all over Singapore, was met with delighted shouts from the audience. Aisyah Nurul Izza (20S03A) took the stage with her baritone saxophone as the last soloist of the night, to delighted screams from several audience members. With a jovial beat and iconic tunes recurring throughout, this piece sent everyone humming along and grooving to the beat. Later, Aisyah recalled her panic at “[walking] out late and missing [her] first note”, but added that she enjoyed it very much nonetheless.

Aisyah, her baritone saxophone, and a load of razzle-dazzle.

Eventually, the piece ended and was met with even louder applause from the audience, who evidently had yet to descend from the high of such a funky piece. The emcees came onstage one last time to announce the end of A Tempo XXVIII, bidding the audience goodnight and finally retreating offstage themselves. Afterwards, Aisyah, summarised the entire semester-long preparation process: “the whole concert preparation process was quite [taxing] because our repertoire was quite difficult to begin with…adjusting to the high standards in a short amount of time was quite challenging for most of us.” Sebastian added that he had his batchmates to thank for the smooth-sailing experience in dealing with the administrative side of the concert-planning process, while Yishan recalled with some amusement at the alacrity of her bandmates when it came to removing their painful court shoes at “every given opportunity”.

It had, indeed, been a night to remember. And it was noteworthy that nothing, not even their polished brass instruments, had shone brighter than the 50-odd members of Raffles Symphonic Band all evening.

A picture of the band!

Repertoire:

  1. (Percussion Ensemble) Shared Space by Ivan Trevino
  2. (Brass Quintet) Brass Quintet No. 3 in D-flat Major by Victor Ewald
  3. (Full Band) Toccata Marziale by Ralph Vaughan Williams
  4. (Full Band) Yiddish Dances by Adam Gore
  5. (Saxophone Octet) Quick Motion by Rika Ishige
  6. (Full Band) Sweet Sunset by Jan De Haan
  7. (Full Band) Selections from Starlight Express (arr. Jerry Nowak)
  8. (Full Band) The Year of the Dragon by Philip Sparke
  9. Encore: Deep Purple Medley


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