Singapore Symphony Orchestra to play commissioned Singapore work on tour

Singaporean composer Chen Zhangyi's (above) An Ethereal Symphony will make its European premiere on the SSO's five-city tour. It was specially commissioned by SSO music director Shui Lan.
Singaporean composer Chen Zhangyi's (above) An Ethereal Symphony will make its European premiere on the SSO's five-city tour. It was specially commissioned by SSO music director Shui Lan.PHOTO: SINGAPORE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Singaporean composer Chen Zhangyi's An Ethereal Symphony will make its European premiere on the SSO's five-city tour. It was specially commissioned by SSO music director Shui Lan (above).
Singaporean composer Chen Zhangyi's An Ethereal Symphony will make its European premiere on the SSO's five-city tour. It was specially commissioned by SSO music director Shui Lan (above).PHOTO: SINGAPORE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra will be performing a Singaporean's composition on its European tour

For its tour of Prague and Germany this month, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) is going beyond the well-known works of classical music titans from the West.

It will also be performing a specially commissioned composition by Singaporean Chen Zhangyi, offering Europe a taste of what Singapore's own musical scene has to offer.

The piece, An Ethereal Symphony, was conceptualised as a movement of a larger symphonic work that explores the idea of cosmic motion and also harks back to Chen's memory of his late grandfather, a former fisherman who used to live in a kampung in Punggol.  

Chen, 31, recalls how his grandfather had appreciated seeing Singapore grow from village to metropolis. "He was a Buddhist and often talked about Buddhist teachings and the idea of paradise and how Singapore is quite close to that," says the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory alumnus. "Musically, the work is quite celestial in its textures, reminding me of what my grandpa said."

Last year, when the SSO performed one of Chen's compositions Rain Tree - which was premiered by the Tokyo Philharmonic in 2011 - its music director Shui Lan was so impressed with his work that he commissioned a piece from Chen for the orchestra's Europe tour.

Shui says: "His music is very colourful, and also a mix of East and West, old and new. It's something we're excited to showcase in Europe."

The orchestra will be on a five-city tour of Europe from May 23 to 31, a packed trip that includes appearances in the prestigious Dresden Music Festival and Prague Spring International Music Festival.

The tour will take the orchestra to Prague in the Czech Republic - which it revisits after a 28-year absence - and to the German cities of Berlin, Munich, Dresden and Mannheim. The SSO last played in Germany in 2010.

While taking on pieces from Europe's composing greats such as Germans Strauss and Schumann on home ground brings with it heightened pressure and expectations, the SSO is raring to go.

"We're playing major pieces of music from their countrymen, so you can imagine how demanding it is for a foreign orchestra to go in, play music that the audience in these countries know so well," says Shui, 58.  "The standard they're looking for will be challenging to meet, but we're looking forward to the experience, playing in different concert halls to new audiences."

The tour is also set to be a reunion of familiar faces. The orchestra will share the stage with acclaimed violinist Gil Shaham and cellist Jan Vogler, who have played with the SSO.

"They know the SSO's musicians very well, so this will be a wonderful tour with old friends," says Shui of the musicians. "The SSO is now in very good shape, has been preparing well and is in good spirits. We're ready to go."

It will also play with German violinist Arabella Steinbacher.

With the orchestra poised to take the stage in cities steeped in classical music, such as Berlin, Munich and Prague, Shui says: "The question is, why do these cities need to hear the SSO? Why does Berlin need to hear us when they have the Berlin Philharmonic, one of the best orchestras in the world? Why does Munich, which has four principal orchestras?"

His answer: "We want to bring something special, our very own SSO sound and our own music- making, and we also want to show our flexibility, playing works from Europe along with our very own work. We want to offer something different, something special to us, and we want to give a good and convincing performance."

While the SSO, which was founded in 1979, is a relatively young orchestra from a small Asian country, it has got the nod abroad.

Its BBC Proms debut in London in 2014 received glowing reviews, with British newspapers The Guardian and The Telegraph rating the performance four out of five stars.

Mr Chng Hak-Peng, chief executive officer of Singapore Symphonia Company Limited, which runs the SSO, says: "The orchestra has really grown its reputation in Europe and a lot of it is due to Maestro (Shui). He conducts a lot in Europe and he's well known there for works such as Rachmaninov and Mahler."

China-born Shui joined the SSO in 1997. He was awarded the Cultural Medallion in 2009.

Giving the SSO opportunities to play overseas offers the world a glimpse of Singapore's cultural prowess, Shui says: "We've been playing in Singapore, but we also want to show the world that Singapore has a very good symphony orchestra."

European audiences have so far flocked to watch the SSO's concerts. Tickets for its shows in Germany in 2010 were sold out.

Mr Chng, 43, says: "They're eager to watch us and they see that we have something to say about music - not just about Singaporean works, but also works all over the world. They see we have an artistic vision and they appreciate that."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 17, 2016, with the headline 'Cosmic symphony based on memories of grandpa'. Print Edition | Subscribe