Singapore International Festival of Arts

Arts festival presents a crash course in a century's worth of classical music promises to make the genre accessible

Southbank Centre’s resident orchestra, London Sinfonietta, with conductor Sian Edwards (above), will perform with 80 student musicians of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra. -- PHOTO: KATIE VANDYCK
Southbank Centre’s resident orchestra, London Sinfonietta, with conductor Sian Edwards (above), will perform with 80 student musicians of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra. -- PHOTO: KATIE VANDYCK
Southbank Centre’s resident orchestra, London Sinfonietta (above), with conductor Sian Edwards, will perform with 80 student musicians of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra. -- PHOTO: KEVIN LEIGHTON
Southbank Centre’s resident orchestra, London Sinfonietta (above), with conductor Sian Edwards, will perform with 80 student musicians of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra. -- PHOTO: KEVIN LEIGHTON

Nobody needs to be afraid of the concert hall", is the refrain of Listen To The 20th Century.

Spanning nearly 12 hours of talks and concerts over six days starting tonight, the series will take listeners on a crash course through 100 years of classical music.

Part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts, the series of four concerts and five lectures or panels is presented by London's famous arts hub, the Southbank Centre and its resident orchestra, London Sinfonietta.

The 16-member orchestra performs in Singapore along with about 80 student musicians of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra in full-strength orchestral pieces such as Debussy's Prelude a l'apres midi d'un faune.

The concerts are condensed from a series of 150 performances the London Sinfonietta held in London last year and are for people who are "frightened" of classical music, says Ms Gillian Moore, 55, Southbank Centre's head of classical music.

"We're committed to introducing the music in a friendly and accessible way," she says. "We take people chronologically through the 20th century and show the connections between events in the world and music - why the music might be what it is."

This includes, for example, French composer Claude Debussy's exposure to Javanese gamelan music, which inspired bits of his late 19th century piece Prelude a l'apres midi d'un faune. It is considered a bridging piece between Romantic composers such as Beethoven and those with more modern styles.

Context like this will be provided in five pre-show talks open to the public, regardless of whether or not they have bought concert tickets.

Speakers include Ms Moore; Oxford professor of musicology Jonathan Cross; Oxford history professor and arts presenter Rana Mitter; BBC Radio 3 music broadcaster Sara Mohr-Pietsch; and conductor Sian Edwards, who leads most of the concerts.

"You won't be alone in the concert hall, there'll be somebody telling you what the music is for," says Ms Moore.

Festival director Ong Keng Sen says: "I hope more audiences will avail themselves of the free talks. I, for one, would love to know more about the times these compositions sprang from. In that way, I begin to hear and understand them beyond simply playing the CD."

He says the talks help to counter-balance how "in Singapore we are often consuming the end-product. The Singapore International Festival of Arts believes in bridging audiences to quality art and enhancing that musical moment. If I understood Shostakovich's dilemma, maybe the music would begin to reflect my personal experience".

Shostakovich lived and worked under Stalin's regime and his fortunes rose and fell according to government approval of his music - his Fifth Symphony, which will be played in the series, can be seen as a conservative response to earlier criticism of the more daring techniques in his Fourth Symphony.

The concert has also been a learning experience for the Yong Siew Toh music students here, who typically get six weeks to prepare for a single concert and, for this, had four weeks to prepare for the equivalent of two concerts.

Third-year oboe student Bernice Lee Wen Ting, 20, says she is more used to playing Beethoven and similar composers and it was harder to deal with modern, atonal pieces such as contemporary Scots musician James MacMillan's The Confessions Of Isabelle Gowdie.

She says: "In these past three weeks, I feel I've grown because I've put myself in another role. I find the repertoire challenging but very interesting."

The first concert is tomorrow, titled Early Modernism And The Jazz Age and showcases composers from the late 19th and early 20th century such as Debussy and Stravinsky. Next is The Age Of Fear on Friday, featuring Prokofiev and Shostakovich, mid- to late-20th-century composers who were censored by the Soviet regime.

The third concert on Saturday, Post-War Directions, is a must-watch. The musically varied three-hour programme highlights different trends such as the avante- garde, spirituality and minimalism, through the works of composers such as John Cage, Arvo Part and Terry Riley.

The series concludes on Sunday with No More Rules and the "ascendancy of Asian composers", according to Ms Moore, who loves the work of contemporary South Korean composer Unsuk Chin, among others.

She says: "We could have done a few concerts just on Asian composers in the second half of the 20th century but we had to take a snapshot of everything."

akshitan@sph.com.sg


CONCERTS

EARLY MODERNISM AND THE JAZZ AGE

Where: Sota Concert Hall

When: Tomorrow, 8pm

Admission: $40, $60, $80 (from Sistic, call 6348-5555 or go to sistic.com.sg)

THE AGE OF FEAR

Where: School of the Arts (Sota) Concert Hall

When: Friday, 8pm

Admission: $40, $60, $80 from Sistic

POST WAR DIRECTIONS (A 3-PART CONCERT)

Where: Sota Concert Hall

When: Saturday, 6pm

Admission: $60, $80, $100 from Sistic

NO MORE RULES

Where: Sota Concert Hall

When: Sunday, 3pm

Admission: $40, $60, $80 from Sistic

Pre-Show Talks

INTRODUCTION TO THE MUSIC OF A CENTURY: THE 20TH CENTURY FROM JAZZ TO MINIMALISM AND BEYOND WITH RANA MITTER

What: From Rabindranath Tagore to Virginia Woolf, Oxford professor of history and BBC Radio 3 presenter Rana Mitter talks about the artists and political movements that shaped the music of the 20th century. With Oxford professor of musicology Jonathan Cross, and an introduction by Southbank Centre's head of classical music Gillian Moore.

Where:Sota Studio Theatre

When: Today, 7pm

EARLY MODERNISM AND THE JAZZ AGE

What: Cross and his colleague Mitter explain modernism and how the music of Debussy, Mahler, Stravinsky and others set the scene for the first years of the 20th century.

Where: Sota Studio Theatre

When: Tomorrow, 6.30pm

THE AGE OF FEAR

What: Cross, Moore and conductor Sian Edwards discuss the music of composers who lived through the Cold War, Nazi death camps and other regimes of terror in this talk chaired by BBC Radio 3 music presenter Sarah Mohr-Pietsch.

Where: Sota Studio Theatre

When: Friday, 6.30pm

POSTWAR DIRECTIONS

What: Cross summarises new directions in music after World War II, including minimalism and post-minimalism and how the listening experience evolved from the concert hall to the iPod.

Where: Sota Studio Theatre

When: Saturday, 4.30pm

NO MORE RULES

What: Sara Mohr-Pietsch chairs a roundtable discussion with Cross, Moore, Edwards and representatives of the London Sinfonietta about new trends in music and how Asian composers have recently come to prominence in the West.

Where: Sota Studio Theatre

When: Sunday, 1.30pm

Admission to all talks is free. For details, e-mail sifa@artshouse.sg or go to facebook.com/sifa.sg