Circle of Life – A Tribute to Iskandar Ismail

The Philharmonic Winds presented Circle of Life: A Night of Musicals at the Esplanade Concert Hall on Sunday, featuring a tribute to the late Iskandar Ismail, performing some of his finest music arrangements for popular Singapore musicals such as Chang & Eng and Beauty World.

“As part of our overall artistic mission, we hope to have a balance in the things we do. In Philharmonic Winds, we try to achieve different aims through diverse projects – i, Cutting edge works or new pieces to raise our artistic standards; ii, Familiar pieces that are looked into with more depth; iii, Works of Singaporean composers; and iv, Music that connects with the audience. Since our last concert was more serious, this project intends to balance it out.” mentioned Dr Leonard Tan, resident conductor, when asked about the overall aim of the project.

“Before Iskandar passed on, we had already planned to collaborate with him. In fact, we wanted him to write an introductory piece for this tribute to Singapore musicals as he had played a fantastic role in the music arrangements. Unfortunately, the idea did not happen, so we decided to use this opportunity to honour him instead,” continued Dr Leonard.

PHOTO: Clive

The concert showcased some world-renowned musical arrangements such as Les Misérables, The Circle of Life from Lion King, and Phantom of the Opera featuring Yap Wai Hoong on the pipe organ.

Veteran maestro Mr Luk Hoi Yu also took the baton in Saigon, a musical based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera ‘Madame Butterfly’.

Other highlights included the music of Liang Wern Fook (梁文福) in an arrangement ‘If There’re Seasons’ 《天冷就回来》, as well as ‘Seasons of Love‘ from the musical Rent and ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You‘ from Grease; both accompanied by guest vocalists Benjamin Kheng from the Sam Willows and young singer Tay Kexin.

In a special second half tribute to Singapore’s “Music Man”, the concert opened with ‘The Overture’ – an arrangement of tunes such as ‘Welcome to Beauty World’ from Beauty World, ‘Mai Phen Rai’ from Chang & Eng and ‘Time’ from Mortal Sins. The Philharmonic Winds then introduced Gani Karim as guest vocalist to “Bunga Sayang“, from Dick Lee’s musical Kampung Amber, where he was chosen by Iskandar to play the part of a 70 year old man.

“I was 24 years old at that time, and I thought to myself, how can I possibly play as a 70 year old man. It became a big challenge as I had to sing lower, as an old man. But what happened after that was that in every original musical produced, I was involved with Iskandar. In every year without fail, he will record me for the countdown, the national day parades and the voice for the fireworks,” recalled Gani.

The segment also featured Tay Kexin with ‘When All The Tears Have Dried‘ from Sing to the Dawn, whose dream to work with a symphony orchestra or wind band came true with this project.

“It is an understatement to say that I am very excited. I really enjoyed singing with a whole bunch of people behind me and it is an amazing experience. I feel very privileged to collaborate with Benjamin and Gani, where for the rehearsals, Gani has helped me a lot. It is my first time singing for a musical, as previously I have only worked with the Chinese Orchestra, funk band and the normal band setup. I did not know what style to take but Gani helped me to convey and deliver the song. Very cool!” said Kexin.

Circle of Life Rehearsal
PHOTO: Clive

“Iskandar played a vital role in me being a singer now. I started singing in NUS Jazz Band when he was our music director, and he encouraged me a lot,” she added.

Accompanied by the voices of Benjamin, Gani and Kexin, the Philharmonic Winds completed the concert with ‘Cha Cha’, from the musical ‘Beauty World‘. A quick number, ‘You Can’t Stop The Beat’ from the musical ‘Hairspray‘ rounded up a wonderful night of musicals.

“Iskandar unleashed me in the studio; he always said to me ‘you are the man’, and encouraged me to do what I do best. At that point of time, he was no longer talking to me on a mentor level but more of a collaborator, and my relationship with him evolved beyond a student,” Gani reflected.

“And for a teacher to treat you like that and bring you to that level, it is not spoken, it is his mannerism. That, is a man who is most generous, for an artist to write and let you unleash it, to take a piece and put a voice in it; that, is a person filled with generosity to ensure that people around him will always be new versions of him so to speak,” he added.

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