Rhapsodic Stories – An Interview with Samuel Phua, saxophonist | The Flying Inkpot
The saxophone is still an under-appreciated instrument in the classical music world. Derek Lim speaks to saxophonist, Samuel Phua, on his upcoming concert, Rhapsodic Stories, with fellow saxophonist Michellina Chan and pianist Abigail Sin, to learn more.
The Flying Inkpot: Hi Samuel, thank you for speaking to The Flying Inkpot. Tell us a little about how you came to play the saxophone.
Samuel Phua: I had no choice on the matter actually! Both my older brothers were in the Maha Bodhi school band CCA (Ed: Co-curricular activity), so when it came to my turn to enroll in primary school, the question wasn’t so much which CCA I would have liked to join, but rather which instrument I would like to play!
The conductor called my mom to ask if I would be keen to learn the saxophone and I distinctly remember replying with another question – “what is a saxophone?” And she said yes on the phone!
TFI: Who were some of your inspirations/saxophone heroes?
SP: Some of my saxophone heroes include Claude Delangle and Lin Chien Kwan, whose recordings I still listen to to this day. I met them at the first Singapore saxophone symposium, organized by Dr. Zechariah Goh. It was my first experience listening to live classical saxophone music – a riveting experience!
Another one of my inspirations is my teacher, Joonatan Rautiola. I fell in love with his recording of Robert Schumann’s Three Romances, which I stumbled upon on YouTube. It took me some courage to write to him for a class and I ended up studying with him for my Bachelor studies in Finland three years later.
TFI: When you last played with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra in Glazunov’s saxophone concerto, you said that the saxophone has not been yet established as a standard orchestral instrument.
The saxophone has been (and arguably is still seen as) an instrument that’s more associated with jazz and band music. Tell our readers why you think it should be given serious consideration as a classical instrument?
SP: The saxophone is such a versatile and virtuosic instrument with a distinctly unique timbre. I find that it can be incredibly complimentary to an orchestra, but also very soloistic when necessary. We can see this reflected beautifully in works like Ravel’s Boléro and Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, and also orchestral works by prolific Singaporean composers – Dr. Goh’s Iridescence and Dr. Kelly Tang’s “Montage” for jazz trio and symphony orchestra are just two examples of such works.
TFI: In this upcoming concert, you will be playing a program of works primarily by Singaporean composers. Tell us about some of these works and the creative process behind their conception.
SP: These composers are friends and mentors whom I’ve worked with extensively in the past. We probably met at concerts and I probably heard their world premieres for other pieces for violin/piano.
The repertoire for this concert can be split into two groups:
The first group comprises “un-shelved historical’ works written in the past. One example of such a piece is Dr. Goh’s Suite for saxophone and piano. It was written for two of his friends. The pieces were inspired by their time studying in the US (and is one of the earliest concert works written for the saxophone by a Singapore composer)
The second group is made up of works that I commissioned, such as ‘But I am the Lallang’ by Tan Yuting (inspired by the poem ‘I am the Lallang’ by Lim Thien Soo) and Dirge and Dance by Elliot Teo (inspired in part by Benjamin Britten’s early Sinfonia da Requiem for orchestra, Op.20). These were written for past recording projects: Stories from Singapore and New Music Demystified.
Speaking of new pieces, I thought I’d take the chance to tell a funny story. When I was moving back from Finland, I gave Derek Oh, or nowadays he goes by Jin Oh in Finland, my massage gun, and in return, he wrote a very beautiful piece for my students and myself to play. He also wrote both a Chinese and English poem to go with it. Being so far away from Singapore for so long, he started to embrace his Chinese roots even more and frequently draw inspiration from Chinese music and infuse it with Western Classical – as will be heard in ‘The Grey Birch’. Moreover, we both also shared a history of binge-watching Chinese Wuxia films such as The Legend of the Condor Heroes while studying together in Finland.
TFI: You will also be playing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in an interesting arrangement by Jun Nagao. The piano originally takes centre stage in his own version. With only three instruments, is this version more chamber-music-like and what are some of the differences the audience can expect? Are there any aspects that you think are improved by this arrangement?
The original Rhapsody in Blue has been arranged in a way that you’ve probably never heard before – therein, I’ll be required to play three different saxophones (thankfully not at the same time!) alongside the piano. I would consider this a wonderful piece of chamber music where both players are equal partners (as opposed to a solo +accompaniment). There’s so much musical banter happening between the saxophone and piano and both parts are equally virtuosic so we’re having an intermission before tackling this work. In this version, the saxophone part retains many of Gershwin’s melodic lines, but ornaments and embellishes them in a fun and dazzling fashion, all without losing the gist of the original.
There are many differences between the original and Nagao’s arrangement, one example being that the cadenza is entirely different and is now played by the saxophone instead of the piano. There are plenty more things to say about this, but rather than spoil it for you, why not just come and experience it for yourself?
22 Oct 2022, 8pm, Esplanade Recital Studio
Tickets available on https://rhapsodicstories.peatix.com priced at $15 (students) and $25