Music that tells the Singapore story

Vocalist Chriz Tong singing at The Story Of Singapore concert commemorating the 95th anniversary of Chinese newspapers in Singapore.
Vocalist Chriz Tong singing at The Story Of Singapore concert commemorating the 95th anniversary of Chinese newspapers in Singapore.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI



Singapore Chinese Orchestra

Singapore Conference Hall

Last Saturday

What is Singaporean music? That question begged to be answered again at this Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO) concert conducted by Yeh Tsung, commemorating the 95th anniversary of Chinese newspapers in Singapore, with the founding of Nanyang Siang Pau in 1923.

Opening the evening was Wang Chen Wei's The Sisters' Islands, which has become a classic example of Nanyang music.

Employing the pelog scale, the sumptuously orchestrated symphonic poem based on an old Malay legend was highly narrative, with significant solos for dizi and zhonghu, and, at its climax, the blast of a giant conch shell blown as a wind instrument.

There were two world premieres from SCO's two most recent composers-in-residence.

Both were played to projected montages of Singapore history from Singapore Press Holdings' (SPH) vast photograph archive.

Eric Watson's As The River Flows mused on the history of the Singapore River, from idyllic beginnings to pollution and grime, its clean-up and eventual gentrification.

The music followed that trajectory as visuals transformed from black and white to brilliant colour.

Law Wai Lun's The Stories Of Singapore - Singapore's Press History delved into Chinese headline news, from the Japanese Occupation, independence from Malaysia and the Sars outbreak to swimmer Joseph Schooling and violinist Chloe Chua's world-beating triumphs.

Dramatic music gave way to a gliding waltz before a valedictory march closed the proceedings.

To lighten things up, there were two medleys of xinyao (Singaporean mandopop) by Chen Jiaming, orchestrated by Phang Kok Jun and sung very idiomatically by Chriz Tong and Allan Moo.

The projected accompanying lyrics gave the feeling of the audience eavesdropping on a high-class karaoke session with songs like Like A Swallow, Moonlight In The City, Gone Too Far and Foolish Hearts.

The evening's big work was Law's Ode To Singapore, a choral symphony composed for the SG50 celebrations in 2015.

Featuring the SPH Chinese Choir and Soka Chorus, it was more eclectic than its Beethovenian title suggested.

Following a stirring a cappella choral Prelude, Fight And Strive sounded like a highly dramatic confluence of the Yellow River Cantata, Carmina Burana and Lord Of The Rings music, sung in Chinese.

The Song Of Singapore that followed was a happy hymn with a big melody, extolling the nation's inexorable progress into the First World.

However, the Chinese lyrics by Pan Cheng Lui, despite their honest intention, were banal and laughable when translated into English.

Take for example, "HDB dwellings beckoning us home/ Newater offering peace of mind/ The aroma of kopi warms the hearts /Raise our cups to peace and prosperity for one and all".

The finale was a sung recitation of the National Pledge, concluding with a rousing, "Sing, Singapore!/ Majulah Singapura/Sing to our brighter tomorrow!"

So lusty and proud was the performance by the choirs and orchestra that it was hard to doubt their graft and commitment.

Good or bad, inspired or indifferent, Singaporean music needs to be heard.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 17, 2018, with the headline 'Music that tells the Singapore story'. Print Edition | Subscribe