Musical birthday party for an octogenarian



The Philharmonic Winds

Esplanade Concert Hall


For two evenings last week, 77-year-old pianist Martha Argerich lit up the stage of Esplanade Concert Hall. On Sunday evening, it was the turn of octogenarian British conductor Timothy Reynish to dominate the proceedings, leading The Philharmonic Winds in an invigorating concert which celebrated his 80th birthday.

Some of the works were commissioned by or dedicated to the wind orchestra's principal guest conductor and included two local premieres. The concert opened with Kenneth Hesketh's Masque, a lighthearted scherzo-like movement showcasing pinpoint articulation from the woodwinds and a big melody from the sonorous brass.

Its pomp and pageantry continued into Guy Woolfenden's Illyrian Dances, a neo-baroque suite of dance movements distinguished by flights of fancy. Sounding like film music of popular appeal, it was well played, such as in the finale's tricky jig-rhythms which closed with good humour.

A sterner test was provided by Derek Bourgeois' Symphony For William, the first of two extended works. Written in memory of Reynish's third son William, who was only 34 when he died in a mountaineering accident, its three movements encapsulated the young man's free spirit.

The opening Will-O-The-Wisp displayed an elfin lightness and mordant wit not unlike scores by Prokofiev or Walton. A warm French horn solo provided a bittersweet tinge to the slow movement Dianthus Barbatus (Sweet William), answered by a plaintive oboe in calm moments of reflection and contemplation. The finale, Will Power, bristled with anger and discord before racing off in a wild chase which brought to mind Khachaturian's Sabre Dance, but it closed on a quiet note.

The other big work was Yasuhide Ito's As Time Is Passing On, a symphonic poem that featured the 65-strong Philharmonic Winds Festival Chorus (Zechariah Goh, choirmaster). Mortality and impermanence were explored in its four linked sections, opening with a sombre Lamento before erupting into a lively Marcia, striding with Elgarian swagger.

The voices entered in Dies Irae, all dissonance and apocalyptic visions, and followed up mostly a cappella in the final part sung in Japanese. The accompaniment was light, with isolated percussion, pared-down woodwinds and harp. Closing in Latin with Requiem Aeternam, this brought to mind Benjamin Britten's Sinfonia Da Requiem, originally dedicated to the Empire of Japan, but rejected because of its religious content. Ito was just returning the favour here.

Receiving its world premiere was Ito's Time-Into-Music, written for Reynish's 80th birthday. A chirpy woodwind chorale gave way to a busy fugue, quoting from Verdi's opera Falstaff (composed when the Italian was 80), before returning to the earlier celebration. Another birthday greeting was Spaniard Luis Alarcon's Tim, A British Pasodoble, a bull-fighting dance dressed in English garb with a cheeky quote from Elgar's Pomp & Circumstance March No. 1.

The concert concluded with Adam Gorb's Bohemian Revelry, four movements of Slavonic-styled dances taking Smetana and Dvorak as inspiration. Rustic, comedic and colourful, it was an excellent way to end a musical birthday party.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 19, 2018, with the headline 'Musical birthday party for an octogenarian'. Print Edition | Subscribe