A symphony tribute to Mr Lee Kuan Yew that he would have liked


The Philharmonic Winds

Esplanade Concert Hall/Saturday

Singapore's jubilee year has been open season for a raft of new works inspired by nationhood, nostalgia and the demise of the country's founding father Lee Kuan Yew. This concert by The Philharmonic Winds conducted by Leonard Tan featured no fewer than five world premieres by established and rising local composers.

Terrence Wong Fei Yang's Foundation began with a timpani roll and brass chorale, from which a passacaglia unfolded with a steady march-like rhythm. This is an antique compositional form with short variations built over a foundation of repeated rhythmic measures. With flourishes from woodwinds and brass, the work gained momentum and speed before closing abruptly.

While the opener pondered the fate of civilisations, the next two works, selected from an open call for compositions, dwelled on the wonders of nature. Gregory Gu Wei's Meditation Under The Midnight Sun, composed following a trip to the Norwegian Arctic, had a pastoral feel with prominent piccolo, clarinet and oboe solos. It progressed to a warmth of real splendour and a serene ending.

Oh Jin Yong's A Glance Upon The Silver River was a contemplation of the celestial. The contrabassoon's drone, tinkling percussion and piano created an aural haze for this piece of dynamic extremes and abrupt shifts. There was a glorious melody for the solo euphonium, leading to an outbreak of sound before dissipating to the murky and mysterious void it had began with.

As promising as the three young composers were, it was the veterans who dominated the show. Belgium-born Robert Casteels' symphonic poem Hanging Gardens was the most abstract work, but had the advantage of sound engineering by Dirk Stromberg and a projected film of natural images manned by Andrew Thomas.

Its Wagnerian scope was a breathtaking one, a massive canvas of sound referencing the loss of the fabled Babylonian ancient wonder. Its gravitation to the key of G major provided the work's pivot, which suggests that there is hope for humanity after all.

Zechariah Goh Toh Chai's three-movement L.K.Y.-Legacy was probably the Lee Kuan Yew symphony everybody was waiting for. Thankfully, it was not an ultra-nationalistic paean but a sympathetic view tempered by the loss of the composer's own father in January. The first two movements were prefaced by quotes from the late leader.

The first, Herald, dealt with Singapore's separation from Malaysia, a movement of dissonance and chromaticism reflecting Mr Lee's anguish on Aug 9, 1965, with a trumpet solo resounding from the hall's Circle. The second, Romanza, was lighter and a tender tribute to Mrs Lee, his pillar of strength for many decades. Its key of G minor however projected a pervading sense of loss.

The finale, Monumentum, quoted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the State Funeral and the epitaph of Sir Christopher Wren in St Paul's Cathedral, "Si monumentum requiris, circumspice (If you seek his monument, look around you)." The melody, resembling that of Faure's Pavane, was sung by members of the orchestra and the work closed with a conspicuous lack of pomp or bombast. That would have been exactly how Mr Lee would have liked it.

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