Composer Leong's symphony to play again, 40 years after

Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra will perform symphonic work by pioneer Leong Yoon Pin

Next month, come and listen to a piece of local music which is being performed for the first time in 40 years.

It is the late pioneering composer Leong Yoon Pin's Symphony No. 2, which features four movements and incorporates four of Tang poet Li Bai's poems. The symphony, which melds traditional Chinese music with contemporary Western compositional techniques and harmonies, was last performed in 1979 during its world premiere.

Leong, who died four years ago at 79 after contracting pneumonia, was widely acknowledged as the father of Singaporean composers. He wrote more than 100 works including Singapore's first opera, and was awarded the Cultural Medallion in 1982.

He was also the Singapore Symphony Orchestra's first composer-in-residence in 2000 and his most-widely played piece is the Dayong Sampan Overture (1980), a rearrangement of a Malay folk tune.

Now, Leong's Symphony No. 2 will be performed by 80 members of the Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra at a concert on April 12, fittingly titled Tribute - and 50 members of community choir The Joy Chorale will be singing the choral parts. Works by Sibelius, Grieg, and German composer Richard Strauss will be performed too.

Set up in 1986, the orchestra has performed other local music previously, including local composer Jeremy Monteiro's Overture in C - The Story Of Singapore in January.

Mr Adrian Tan, its Music Director and Conductor, explained: "While thinking of how we could celebrate Singapore's 50th birthday, we knew we had to pay homage to Mr Leong, who has undoubtedly made the most significant impact on our classical music scene.

"As a symphony is regarded by many to be the pinnacle representation of a composer's art, we thought it meaningful for us to perform it in his memory."

Mr Tan also described the symphony as a deeply moving piece of music, which was likely personal to Leong too.

"It's possible that he empathised with the poet Li Bai, who was frustrated that his abilities in the government were not recognised - as his very modern-sounding music was not fully embraced by musicians and audiences in the 1970s," said Mr Tan.

He personally admits to initially not being fond of another of Leong's pieces, Daybreak & Sunrise, which he had to perform in the Raffles Institution Military Band at 15 - though it left a deep impression on him. The Singapore Wind Symphony will be performing that piece this September.

Mr Lim Seh Chun, who played the flute in the symphony's 1979 premiere, agreed that Leong was indeed ahead of his time as a composer.

"His chord progressions and intervals are very unique. They sound bad if any singer's pitch is just a little off - but sounds amazingly rich when everyone hits his notes," the Assistant Provost of Student Affairs at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, 60, said.

He had first met Leong when they were performing a piece by Italian composer Giovanni Paggi together - he played the flute and Leong the piano - and described Leong as one of the most unassuming, approachable and pleasant musicians he had met.

This is a sentiment echoed by Mr Tan, who met Leong for the first time in 2008 when requesting to include one of his orchestral pieces for a concert featuring local and Vietnamese composers.

"He gave me a copy of Jubilation, a piece he wrote for the Singapore Youth Orchestra in 1995. Afterwards, when I offered to give him a copy of the recording we made, he declined - saying he was sure that it was a very good performance. I've never forgotten that," he said.

Leong had handwritten the symphony's score and it was painstakingly digitised by the orchestra's principal flautist Mohamad Rasull Khelid, 39, over a month.

"There are still some puzzling traits like why he gave bowing marks to some instruments and not others, but I like how Mr Leong included Chinese musical elements, like how the second movement opens with a gong sound," he said.

Mr Tan agrees, saying that Leong created his own musical language, blending East and West, and did not "just use a symphony orchestra to play Chinese music, or a Chinese musical theme in a Western composition, as many others do."

Leong's sister, Madam Lucy Leong, believes he would be very proud of the concert if he were alive.

"He often said that there were not enough opportunities to showcase his work, but things have definitely changed. If he knew of this, he'd surely be smiling," the retiree, 72, said.

sarahgyx@sph.com.sg