By Valerie Tan (20A01E) and Emily Ni (20S03C)
Photographs courtesy of Raffles Photographic Society
Before walking into Albert Hong Hall on 7 December 2019, we’d just eaten a whole box of popcorn in the span of twenty minutes, and thought life couldn’t get any better than that.
Then Raffles Symphonic Band decided to prove us wrong.
It started when the members began strutting out with their instruments, lowering the hubbub of the supportive crowd to a murmur as they signalled the beginning of the concert. Sporting snazzy suits and ties (even colour-coded by section!), they looked positively grand, prepared to blow the audience away with their performances. As the lights dimmed, the emcees came out on stage to open the concert, and we settled in for what was about to be a night of pure entertainment.
The band began with four movements from Suite of Old American Dances. First came the Cakewalk—a movement befitting of its name, jaunty as it was. Indeed, much like the actual cakewalk, a “strut” danced to jig-like music by couples, this piece was fun and exciting, and its perky, lively melody had many nodding their heads or bouncing their feet to the rhythm. Light staccato notes opened the piece to create a lively atmosphere; this was followed by a seamless change in key and strong dynamic variation that made this piece especially suspenseful. The drums also served a great role in heightening tensions towards the end of the piece, closing this movement with a thud. It was a well-chosen piece to start off the concert, being buoyant but with room for more excitement.
The atmosphere then took a more sombre turn with the next movement, Schottische. The sudden low, dramatic entrance set the tone for a more solemn-sounding piece, though a bright, jovial atmosphere was still maintained throughout. Once again, suspense was built by the contrasting tempos of the piece, as well as with the use of the woodblock (which we thoroughly enjoyed). High, tinkly notes concluded the movement—very cute, we thought!
The band proceeded with the third movement, the Western One Step. If the previous two movements had been a stroll in the park, this movement was a thrilling action movie car chase—considerably more fast-paced and exciting, with lots of twists and turns along the way, and the animated smiles on the members’ faces only added to the enjoyment experienced listening to this performance. Perhaps an appropriate word to describe this piece would be “momentum”; a plethora of cymbal crashes built up the piece, while the shorter notes made it perkier and livelier. An ostinato of four notes towards the end similarly developed a sense of drama. Overall, we found this a welcome change from the previous two movements, and bopped along to it quite a bit!
Ending off the Suite of Old American Dances was the fifth movement, Rag. What captured us the most about this movement would be the interesting syncopations and rhythm patterns that are used throughout the piece. Intended to represent the ragtime era, the syncopations and rhythms were the herald of a new generation, often criticised by its elders for embracing novel ideas. Opening jubilantly, its enthusiastic tone suddenly transitioned into a softer, thinner-sounding section, before returning to its former brightness. While there were admittedly a few awkward squeaks in this movement, the piece overall was performed well, closing the band’s first piece smoothly.
The band then began Danzón No. 2, and it was easy to see why this distinctively Spanish piece was picked—the exuberant, energetic nature characterising the bulk of this piece perfectly fit the fiesta theme of the night’s concert. Perhaps we were fooled at first with its slow, quiet opening, but the piece eventually grew fast and lively, even carnival-esque with a catchy refrain—a joy to listen to! And when the song eventually became slower and more emotional, the band managed to carefully switch between excitement and nostalgia, returning to its previously bright sound with ease. What made this piece especially memorable would be the band’s use of Latin American percussion instruments, namely the guiro (which produces a scratchy, rasping sound) and the conga (a type of drum from Cuba). These were definitely hallmarks of the piece, and helped to mark its origins as profoundly Mexican. Indeed, it is no surprise that Danzon is often called “the second national anthem of Mexico”, its spirited nature and cultural significance cementing its popularity. It was one of the pieces that the writers of this article enjoyed the most, and it was also mentioned by several Band members as being their favourite: Yang Xinyue (19S06L) remarked that it was “really fun to play [the] solos” in it, while Jordan Tan (20A03A) enjoyed the experience of making music for this particularly challenging piece.
Following the passion of Danzón No. 2, we now came to the third piece of the night, Spain, described as an instrumental jazz fusion composition. Contrasting greatly with Danzon No. 2, this piece started off slow and mellow, and might have fooled us from the beginning if not for the animated, fast-paced rhythm set by the cowbell. (“More cowbell!”, as a certain comedy sketch might say.) This piece saw considerably more audience engagement than the previous two: at one point, some members of the band clapped their hands for the audience to follow along (albeit for quite a short section, ending abruptly), and a saxophone solo by Renee Yeow (20S06R) was received with cheers and applause.
After a short intermission, the flute ensemble entered to perform the Coloratura for Flute Quartet to shouts of encouragement from the audience. While the rest of the band watched attentively from above, the flute ensemble gathered in a semicircle and began to capture the audience with a beautifully light, almost adorable piece (it could’ve been in a Studio Ghibli movie!). The airy, thrilling tones of the flutes injected even more bliss into the performance, leaving the audience asking for more.
Following the flute ensemble were the saxophones, here to perform the main theme of an anime well-loved by many: Detective Conan. Even louder screams punctuated their entrance, with piercing cries of “Go Renee! Go Aisha! Go Janson!” from the members’ excited friends filling the air. Perhaps this affected the members’ focus slightly; the beginning of their performance did, unfortunately, feel a bit uncoordinated. But they quickly gathered their composure, and almost instantly, the little countermelodies served not as a distraction but rather as a pleasant addition to the piece. Overall, the theatricality of the piece was definitely apt for a detective anime, and the exciting buoyant melody kept us jamming along to the music.
The full band then returned smoothly to commence their sixth piece, Sheltering Sky, conducted this time by student conductor Chen Ruikang (20S06O). With a long, lone note to serve as its airy opening, this piece was a great contrast from the previous cheerier piece. This sombre, sad mood continued for most of the piece—it would’ve been appropriate for a scene in the rain, we thought—except for a sudden crescendo towards its end, allowing it to fill the space majestically. While there were perhaps some hiccups with the acoustics of the hall, with slightly muffled melodies and messy lower instruments, this piece was overall still a hauntingly beautiful one; soothing yet grand, calming yet awe-inspiring.
Sheltering Sky came to an end far too soon, and the band promptly began their next piece, The Birds of North: a song equally glorious as Sheltering Sky. Composed against the backdrop of the ever changing northern land of Hokkaido, this piece evoked an indescribable sense of wanderlust and homesickness—truly reminiscent of birds migrating to the north—and the turbulent progression of the piece conveyed wonderfully the uneasiness of change. Even despite this uncertainty, a sense of determination and clarity was dramatically conveyed as the piece drew to a close; the song developed and grew in volume, while its triumphant ending reverberated throughout the entire hall, and definitely blew the audience away. This was another personal favourite of ours, and was, without a doubt, the band’s best piece that night.
At this point, the band paused to express their gratitude to several groups of people. Their conductor Mr Lim Yean Hwee was presented with a token of appreciation from band major Huang Xinshuo (20S06H). Following this, shout-outs were given to teachers-in-charge Ms Grace Ho, Ms Qian Kun and Mr Daniel Wong, as well as the band’s instrument instructors. And last but not least, the emcees thanked the audience for taking time off to witness the fruits of their labour (we’d like to thank you instead, Band!).
To conclude the concert, the band launched into their eighth piece, titled Bravo Brass! (exclamation mark included). If we had to select a piece that best encapsulated the theme of “Fiesta”, this would be it; though it felt a bit rushed at times, this song’s fast pace and strong, clear bass holding it together transformed Albert Hong Hall into a fun, fantastical circus. In fact, even when the band slowed down for a brief interlude, a powerful lively feeling was still evident. Jazzy sounds also further contributed to a sense of excitement that kept us on our toes; we thought we could (and would) totally tap dance to this with top hats and suits on. And with this piece, the band managed to end off with a literal bang, creating an explosive end to the evening.
Or maybe the end hadn’t come yet. Thank goodness.
We thought the night couldn’t end on a better note (literally), but the band managed to blow away our expectations once again with their final hidden piece: Caravan. This was clearly a percussion-centric piece, evident not only from the number of sections the percussions had to shine in, but also from the sheer looks of both focus and enjoy on the section’s faces; every member of the section, whether they were on the drumset, or the conga, or the maracas, or the tambourine, poured all their energy into showing off their musical prowess. Of course, this made for a naturally bright and energetic piece: a whole party, so to speak! The trombones even stood up and played in one section, leveraging on the atmosphere that had already been established with their previous song; this, in fact, was what made ex-trombonist and audience member Cheryl Chan (20S06P) decisively select this as her favourite piece. Overall, an incredible sense of energy thrummed through the hall, and lingered even after the final note was played—for real this time.
Even after the concert had ended, Bandemonium still reigned outside the hall as shrieking fans embraced the stars of the night. We fought bravely and awkwardly, stealing members from their much-deserved celebratory photos to ply them with questions. It was clear members were just as pumped up—when asked to describe the concert in three words, Jordan rattled off passionately before correcting himself with “something to remember” (not wrong, we thought!). He also expressed his appreciation for the tightly knit family that was RSB, thanking them for being such a strong support system. In the same vein, one member, who declined to be named, said that this experience was very fulfilling: “Even though I played some wrong notes, Mr Lim was very encouraging! I couldn’t have asked for better people to experience this with.”
There had, of course, been some challenges while preparing for the concert. Xinyue commented that she’d only had a week to prepare as a result of the delightful A Levels, while Jordan humorously complained about the trials and tribulations of transporting a tuba through the turnstile gates every CCA day. (Spoiler: it’s impossible, so he had to walk to the main gate every single time. A tragedy. We feel for you, Jordan.) Nevertheless, the joys definitely outweighed the frustrations for every band member; Year 3 player Titus talked about making TikToks with his fellow performers when they went out for lunch and dinner together after practices, while Jordan similarly cited the wonderful support system that he had that made sessions more fun.
Walking out of the school, we still felt dazed, as if the mood of the concert had yet to dissipate, and agreed that this concert we’d just experienced beat any box of popcorn that we would ever eat. Raffles Symphonic Band had truly popped off that night, and the festive cheer they’d added to our dreary December would stick with us for a while to come.
Suite of Old American Dances (Robert Russell Bennett)
Danzon No. 2 (Arturo Marquez, arr. Oliver Nickel)
Spain (Chick Correa, arr. Tohru Minakuchi)
Coloratura for Flute Quartet (Satoshi Yagisawa)
Detective Conan Main Theme (Katsuo Ohno, arr. Abel Bernal)
Sheltering Sky (John Mackey)
The Birds of North (Hayato Hirose)
Bravo Brass! (Takashi Hoshide)