INKPOT: Joe Burgstaller & The Singapore Wind Symphony – 7 Sep 2014
YEO, Benjamin: “Redhill” – A Symphonic Folklore
TAN, Su-Lian: Trumpet Concerto “Ming” **
CHUNG, Yiu-Kwong: Festival Celebration
conductor: Apo Hsu
Trad arr. MENDEZ, Rafael: La Virgen de la Macarena
VIVALDI-BACH arr. HOLLINGER, T.A.: Trumpet Concerto in D
GERSHWIN arr. BENNETT, R.R.: Porgy & Bess Symphonic Suite
LEE, Jinjun: Variations on “Chan Mali Chan” **
conductor: Adrian Tan
7 September 2014, 5pm
Victoria Concert Hall
Adrian Tan / Music Director
Joe Burgstaller / Trumpet
Apo Hsu / Guest Conductor
by Soo Kian Hing
A concert with Adrian Tan is always a treat, but tonight’s programme was really bursting with goodness. Not only did he invite a world-class trumpet player to perform solo standards with the Singapore Wind Symphony (SWS), but also a dear mentor from Taiwan who brought along some very unique and contemporary repertoire. In line with Adrian’s vision for the SWS to be an advocate for wind band music by local, Southeast Asian and Asian composers, the concert opened and closed with compositions by Singaporeans. Along the way, the SWS helped to deliver two world premieres as well. The concert, a radical departure from a run-of-the-mill wind band concert, attested to the capability of the SWS as a musical ensemble, and marked a milestone for local and Asian composers, who should have no problem getting noticed in the international arena from now on.
The dense programming was sugar-coated with good-humoured banter between the evening’s three ‘stars’: Adrian Tan, who doubled up as emcee, guest conductor Apo Hsu, and trumpeter Joe Burgstaller (right), formerly of Canadian Brass fame, who now flies solo giving concerts and teaching extensively. It seems they already knew each other: Hsu was Adrian’s “accidental” conducting teacher at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music for a month when she had to fill in for a colleague, and Burgstaller is the dedicatee of a trumpet concerto by Malaysian-born composer Su-Lian Tan, whom Apo Hsu had met many years ago while they were still bright-eyed and bushy-tailed students at a music festival. Never to miss an opportunity as an educator, Burgstaller had already had a fun “Trumpet Day” yesterday (jointly presented by Yamaha Music Asia and the SWS with Adrian Tan), giving masterclasses and seminars with Jon Dante, Principal Trumpet of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (“A hundred trumpeters together… that’s a scary thought!” quipped Tan).
“Redhill: A Symphonic Folklore” was commissioned by the SWS for their Taiwan Tour 2014, at which Tan conducted its world premiere. The Singaporean composer Benjamin Yeo may look like a bashful schoolboy, until you realise that he is 29 and already well established on the international band circuit. Yeo has appeared at the prestigious Midwest Clinic in Chicago, and his compositions are published by the shakers and movers on both sides of the Atlantic: C.L. Barnhouse in the U.S., and Beriato/De Haske/Hal Leonard in Europe. A strong narrative element pervades ‘Redhill’, following an old Malay legend from pre-colonial Singapore: a boy’s intelligent plan saved villagers from swordfish attacks, but attracted the paranoid jealousy of the Sultan who ordered his murder. As the boy died, his blood painted the hill red.
To bring this tale to life, Yeo (left) injected ethnic influences that reflect the ancient roots of the island: the sounds of the Indonesian suling, an end-blown bamboo flute, and the Javanese gamelan. A middle passage with piano accompaniment was reminiscent of the melancholic style of xinyao, a sub-genre of Chinese pop ballads written by local singers in the eighties. All these elements were woven into a fabric that is ostensibly identifiable as “Barnhouse music”: an unspoken compositional format common to most pieces published by C.L. Barnhouse, geared towards ease of learning by school bands, and graded to allow for technical challenges for more advanced bands. While this ensured that the work remained accessible to both performer and audience by tapping into a familiar framework, Yeo also introduced a unique “Singaporean” flavour that is attractive and instantly recognisable. Well done, Benjamin!
The first half of the concert was conducted by Taiwanese conductor Apo Hsu. She approached the podium with purposeful strides and squared shoulders, at once filling the hall with a powerful yet elegant stage presence. Her conducting style — sans baton — is concise and precise, and essentially conveys all that is required with an economy of movement, yet the intense energy underneath that is almost palpable. Under her direction, “Redhill” was laid bare, following a pace that was slower than anticipated, but which gave the piece a breathing space and latitude that allowed it to realise its full potential, through the clarity of layers, details and minutiae that Hsu teased from it. In spite of the expansive soundscape, the underlying tension and rhythm were never lost, and Hsu pulled through the entire piece in one continuous, tenuous line. Never before have I heard a local wind band composition directed with such interpretative genius, and Yeo must be very lucky indeed to have his work given such a brilliant execution; Adrian was certainly not exaggerating when he introduced Hsu as one of the top conductors from Taiwan.
Prolific composer Su-Lian Tan may be a more familiar name in the West than locally, being a Professor of Music at Middlebury College in Vermont and a regular collaborator with American musicians, but that did not deter Hsu from introducing her avant-garde style to our local audience. The glassy clang that opens “Ming”, and the exotic harmonies that follow, bring us into her world of Ming vases and wall paintings of birds and trees. Trumpet soloist Joe Burgstaller, for whom the first movement was written in 2012, stepped up for this daunting task. A second movement was added to complete this concerto, “tailored specifically to show off Joe’s curves”, explained conductor Hsu. While the first movement used both trumpet and orchestra in an inventive and almost-atonal language to evoke the Oriental mysticism and brittle beauty of ancient China, the second movement focused more heavily on the trumpet soloist, who had to traverse a veritable smorgasboard of styles, including neo-classicism, jazz, even hip-hop, to give a sense of the cosmopolitanism that reflects modernity. Burgstaller’s secure technique and endless stamina were showcased to the max before a sprawling orchestral accompaniment, that perhaps might have benefitted from some tightening at times. As Hsu observed, the audience had witnessed the “birth” of this work, and she hopes that it will take on a life of its own in concert halls across the globe.
The last piece that Hsu introduced to the audience was another contemporary work, “Festive Celebration” by lauded Taiwanese composer Yiu-Kwong Chung. Though not as atonal as Tan’s trumpet concerto, it nonetheless utilized advanced harmonies and irregular rhythms. The liberal use of unconventional percussion effects — some new to me — and traditional Chinese percussion instruments, especially in the section interwoven with a Chinese New Year classic tune “Dance of the Golden Snake”, was no doubt a nod to the composer’s background as a percussionist. Festive is a fresh take on an overplayed festive tune, and local wind ensembles would do well to add it to their repertoire, especially for concerts themed around Chinese festivals.
“Isn’t it great to be back in the Grand Old Dame?” exulted Tan. For many musicians growing up in the eighties and nineties, the Victoria Concert Hall — dubbed the “Grand Old Dame” by the mainstream media — holds many treasured memories. Back then, the dilapidated hall and musty dressing rooms were the playground of young performers who have now grown up to be professional musicians, music teachers, bandmasters, or simply non-musicians with fond memories. For the past four or five years (it felt like an eternity, though) the VCH was closed for renovation, and only just re-opened its doors for concerts two months ago. Taking a trip down memory lane, some of the older musicians had taken to sharing on social media about their sense of “homecoming” and passing a proverbial baton to a younger generation of music-makers.
The programme for the second half, conducted by Adrian, gave them cause for reminiscence: most of it was standard fare that many “bandies” had played in their youth. Joe Burgstaller joined the SWS in La Virgen de la Macarena, a trumpet showpiece that borrows from Spanish bullfighting songs. As can be expected, there was a lot of bravura, virtuosity and crowd-pleasing showmanship from the soloist. For Bach’s Trumpet Concerto in D after Vivaldi, Burgstaller switched to a piccolo trumpet and the SWS provided continuo with a harpsichord. Other than a brief intonation problem with the double reeds in the middle movement, the Concerto was so perfectly executed that I had no problem imagining this as a real Baroque ensemble and not a wind band! Next, the Symphonic Suite from Gershwin’s “Porgy & Bess” — in a classic arrangement for band — gave Adrian Flowers, the Wind Symphony’s own trumpeter, a chance to shine in the solo passages; the sultry jazz numbers did not disappoint.
Finally, the concert closed with a composition by another Singaporean, Jinjun Lee, a third-year trumpet student at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music. Burgstaller jokingly lamented that he was unable to play many of the technically-challenging parts of the piece so he asked Lee to change them, but after hearing him jump through flaming hoops and scale mountains (musically speaking) in Ming and La Virgen, we were unconvinced that there is anything that he cannot do on the trumpet. Lee’s composition is a set of variations on a popular Malay tune “Chan Mali Chan”, that has been sung for many years as one of Singapore’s “patriotic songs” — songs performed during the National Day period to foster community spirit and togetherness. After stating the theme on the trumpet, the variations pick up the harmonies and do the usual tricks of expanding, adding flourishes, answering, modulating to the minor key, and inverting the melody. The theme was still recognisable in some variations, but in others it seemed only vaguely present; a few segments alluded to video game or anime music in their dramatic splendour and unrelenting pulse. There were some taxing bits for the trumpet soloist, but nothing that Burgstaller couldn’t handle. While Variations on Chan Mali Chan is all the more powerful for utilising a theme residing in the collective conscious of all Singaporeans, in the end this was really a fun take on what a Singaporean composer could do when he was asked to “write something for the best trumpet player in the world”. ‘A’ for effort, and I am sure Burgstaller would agree that Variations is something that he could play again.
Burgstaller rounded up the curtain calls with an encore that is similar in concept to his Youtube video, “Within”: an improvised flugelhorn solo over a droned perfect fifth in C, voices courtesy of the SWS. It was reflective in nature, wordless and contemplative, and some of it reminded me of darker moments in Miles Davis’ blues playing. As I sat listening to the soliloquy of a man who has reached the highest level of instrumental playing, I thought to myself: the wind band movement in Singapore has really come a long way. Now, bands can confidently play works that not even symphony orchestras dared to touch some twenty years ago, and local composers are ready to make their mark on wind band literature; in fact, some have already done so. We are so much closer to Prof Kelly Tang’s wish that local composers should not feel like a “special feature” when their compositions are performed in Singapore — meaning local compositions should be par for the course at concerts, just like any other work by Beethoven or John Williams — and kudos to Adrian for tirelessly championing them with the SWS. If what I had heard tonight is any indication, then I have just this to say to “our guys”: The kid gloves are off, gentlemen. You are ready for the world!