Waving national flags with pride to patriotic songs

REVIEW / CONCERT

SSO NATIONAL DAY CONCERT

Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Esplanade Concert Hall/Last Saturday

What is Singaporean music? Another facet of this conundrum was revealed in the second of National Day Concerts by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO). Conducted by SSO associate conductor Joshua Tan, the music had to do with myriad cultural influences and the creation of "national songs".

The concert's first half dealt with Western influences, opening with the world premiere of A. Dietz's Raffles March, as orchestrated by Bertram Wee. Composed in 1915 and first performed by the Raffles Hotel orchestra in 1922, it was named after the hotel rather than the man who appropriated Singapore for the British crown.

Pompous and blustery, this version with lots of winds and brass is suited for a grenadier guards band rather than a palm court orchestra. Its local counterpart was Tsao Chieh's March (Colonial Days), the 2nd movement from his Singapore Suite. The Elgarian intent to evoke once-glorious days of the British Raj was deliberate, but the themes Tsao used were wholly his own.

Kelly Tang's Montage was a 2010 piano concerto dedicated to and premiered by jazz pianist Jeremy Monteiro. Originally for Chinese instruments, this edition for symphony orchestra is Singapore's answer to Gershwin's Concerto In F. With plenty of spots to extemporise, Monteiro commanded the keyboard with exuberant sweeps and dizzying fingerwork.

Better with every listen, the work also afforded dazzling improvisations for Christy Smith (bass) and Tamagoh (drum), and a plum solo for saxophonist Samuel Phua.

The second half paid tribute to Singapore's ethnic diversity and the forging of a national identity.

Tony Makarome's Jewel Of Srivijaya, a double concerto for mridangam (with VM Sai Akileshwar) and tabla (Nawaz Mirajkar) had its world premiere.

The legacy of Temasek, part of the ancient Srivijaya empire through its "discovery" by Sang Nila Utama, was celebrated with a convincing fusion of Indian music (both Carnatic and Hindustani traditions) and Western orchestration. Without missing a beat, complex drumming rhythms were taken in their stride by both soloists and the orchestra ably kept up through conductor Tan's animated and tireless direction.

Composer Lee Jinjun was rewarded with two world premieres. The first was Kampong Overture, which cleverly incorporated three Malay songs - Geylang Sipaku Geylang, Lenggang Kangkung and Suriram - in a very effective concert piece written in the style of Dvorak's symphonic movements and Slavonic Dances. Even a quote from the Largo of Dvorak's New World Symphony made a brief cameo.

His second coup was Our Singapore Dream, a mash-up of National Day Parade Songs - We Are Singapore, Count On Me Singapore, One People, One Nation, One Singapore - featuring the Singapore Symphony Chorus (Eudenice Palaruan, chorus master) and crafted in the English choral tradition of Elgar and Vaughan Williams. One suspects these two works will be heard rather often from now on.

Nostalgia reigned in Lam Chao Phang's The Awakening and Tan Kian Chin/Bok Sek Yieng's Voices From The Hearts, both being theme music from popular Chinese television series of the 1980s; and Phoon Yew Tien's March On, which rehashed national service songs.

By the time the patriotic Believe In Me, Singapore (in Mandarin) was sung, national flags were emerging from the audience's pockets and waved with fervour.

It was left to Dick Lee's ubiquitous Home and Iskandar Ismail's arrangement of Majulah Singapura, both with jazz singer Joanna Dong at the fore, to elicit an obligatory standing ovation and the communal shedding of tears.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 12, 2019, with the headline 'Waving national flags with pride to patriotic songs'. Print Edition | Subscribe