For years to come, this concert by the Singapore Chinese Orchestra on Saturday to celebrate the opening of the newly completed National Stadium and Sports Hub will be popularly referred to as the "Mega-Concert". In terms of numbers involved in performing live music and sheer magnitude, there have been few equals.
In 1978, a choir of 4,000 sang under the direction of the late Paul Abisheganaden at the Billy Graham Crusade, while a combined chorus of over a thousand from Singapore, Australia and Scandinavia performed Handel's Messiah with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra in 1988.
Both events were held in the old National Stadium, scene of Singapore's football triumphs and home of the Kallang Roar, a venue where the nation also greeted Pope John Paul II and pop icon Michael Jackson. Fond old memories of those escapades and the ubiquitous "drinks, keropoh and kwa-chee" linger, but the new National Stadium with the world's largest domed roof is a sight to behold. A first concert there had to be equally memorable.
The Singapore Chinese Orchestra is no stranger to mass participation concerts having previously staged a mega-concert of a smaller scale with 2,400 performers at the Singapore Indoor Stadium in 2004. This evening's numbers would healthily surpass that as it involved no less than 128 school and community Chinese ensembles and choirs, including several groups from Johore and Sabah.
The SCO's commitment to audience outreach also mandated that this evening's fare was popular and approachable. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's baton provided the down-beat for the opening fanfare to Richard Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra adapted for Chinese instruments by Tan Kah Yong, and the amplified sound of the augmented orchestra was close to deafening.
Each work programmed and conducted by SCO Music Director Yeh Tsung for the concert reflected some facet of the nation's psyche, hopes and aspirations. Nostalgia was represented by Blue Memories, a medley of Teresa Teng hits arranged by Kuan Nai Chung which had to include that evergreen Yue Liang Dai Biao Wo Di Xin (The Moon Represents My Heart).
In reality, most of the works were a celebration of youth, somewhat ironic as the nation is inching inexorably into middle age. SG 50 was only mentioned once during the course of events, but staying young or young at heart was the key to true happiness, it seemed. A martial arts display by Singapore's world wushu champion Vincent Ng, accompanied by music to the Jet Li movie Once Upon In China, provided the adrenaline rush.
More fast music included the popular number Horse Racing, which saw SCO Young Assistant Conductor Moses Gay lead massed erhus in a headlong charge assisted by Clarence Lee providing the beat and vertiginous cadenzas on an electronic piano. 10-year-old pipa virtuosa Chen Xinyu, winner in the 2012 National Chinese Music Competition, was the star in Wu Si Man Jiang's Spring At Tianshan, a rhapsody on Silk Road melodies.
SCO Resident Conductor Quek Ling Kiong then flexed his ample biceps on the dagu (large bass drum) in Power Singapura!, the work for drums of all sizes co-written with Phang Kok Jun. As auditors from the Guinness World Records hurried to crunch the numbers, a Mexican wave rippled through the ranks and files of the ensemble as well as in the lively audience.
Composer-in-residence designate Phoon Yew Tien's Variations On Singapura was a departure from the usual compositional form. It assiduously worked through motifs and fragments of the popular National Day Parade song, revealing bit by bit in short pithy phrases before its full glory was unfurled a single and definitive time.
There was a hush of anticipation as two Guinness World Records were established and awarded to the nation. An orchestra of 3,345 Chinese instrumentalists set a new global landmark, while 4,557 was the number to better when it came to amassing a Chinese drum ensemble. A pat on the back was due for all the students and aspirants who participated.
The evening closed on a sentimental note when veteran musical-meister Dick Lee was invited to sing what is arguably his most popular song, Home. Its memorable lyrics and poignant melody will always resound in the hearts of many as to what it means to be a Singaporean.