As Singapore celebrates its 50th year of nationhood, one is constantly posed with the question, "What is the Singaporean identity?" Along the same lines, one also asks, "What is Singaporean music?"
Singapore Sounds, a new orchestra founded by young conductor Adrian Chiang dedicated to performing Singaporean music, gave its debut on Sunday at Yong Siew Toh Conservatory and provided some of the answers to that poser.
Examples in history from Russian, Czech, Hungarian, English and American music all point to the vernacular, folk music and popular sources as the basis of national music traditions. So Singaporean music must at one point derive from the grassroots; folksongs in native languages, popular music and nationalistic jingles all form the rich fabric from which real Singaporean music evolves.
This landmark 150-minute-long Gala Concert conducted by Chiang provided many examples of these in various guises. Arrangements of songs were the most recognisable ones, with the composers doing their best to dress them up in discernible forms for concert performance.
Young composer Phoon Yu's version of the familiar Tamil song Munnaeru Valiba was a colourful set of variations, the melody first heard on sitar accompanied by piano and harp. Dick Lee's evergreen Home was worked by Phoon into a concertante work for violin, with SSO Co-leader Lynnette Seah negotiating through multiple cadenzas in the Romantic style, playing on a specially crafted SG50 bow by Paul Goh.
Syafiqah 'Adha's Singapura Medley made use of popular Malay dance forms including the asli, inang, joget, canggung and zapin for its four songs, beginning with Di Tanjong Katong with the melody first heard on the accordion, played by the composer herself. This exuberant showing was matched by Zaidi Sabtu-Ramli's arrangement of Shabir Tabare Alam's Singai Naadu (Lion Country), a rousing tune originally in Tamil, now almost totally transformed.
Other than a rather forgettable Count On Me Singapore, Lee Jinjun's arrangements took on a life of their own. His Chan Mali Chan Variations with Kang Chun Meng on euphonium was a virtuoso showstopper with many original ideas, while Fantasia On Rasa Sayang became a neo-baroque invention, include a chaconne, fugue and brass chorale dressed in dissonant harmonies.
This concert also recognised the contributions of foreign-born composers now living in Singapore. Briton Eric Watson's Constellations received its World Premiere, a meditation on the five stars and crescent moon of the national flag, represented by six traditional instruments (erhu, ruan, sitar, tabla, gambus and rebana) performing solos as if in a concerto grosso. His highly accessible tonal style, while not quoting local tunes, was redolent of film music.
More modernistic was Belgium-born Robert Casteels' Travelogue, conducted by the composer and now adapted for a larger orchestra with traditional instruments. A satire on Singapore in the year 2065, the protagonist, acted and sung by the irrepressible tenor Leslie Tay, was a Singaporean exile returning from Mars to find a homeland he does not really recognise. The use of colloquialisms, localities present and past and Singlish made this work undeniably Singaporean.
The concert concluded with Phang Kok Jun's lively Xinyao Medley, with Liang Wern Fook's Mandarin ballads from the 1980s best typified by Xi Shui Chang Liu (Friendship Forever). The encore Cheng Li De Yue Guang (Moonlight In The City), by Chen Jiaming, sent the audience home humming its tune.
Chinese, Malay or Indian, classical, folk or popular, these are our songs which nobody can take away from us.