In 2014, it was announced that the Singapore Wind Symphony (SWS) would join the list of recipients for the National Arts Council Major Grant, which supports the professional and artistic development of arts organizations to be hallmarks of artistic excellence in Singapore. The SWS will be awarded a total of $350,000 over 3 years from 2014 till 2017.
Other prominent recipients of this grant include the Singapore Dance Theatre as well as celebrated theatre companies The Necessary Stage, Theatreworks and Wild Rice. The SWS and the Philharmonic Winds are the only two wind bands on this distinguished list of recipients.
The Band Post speaks to SWS Music Director Adrian Tan on its development under his leadership, how it intends to utilize the grant and some of its future plans.
Congratulations on receiving the NAC Major Grant earlier this year! Can you tell us what were some of the factors considered by the NAC that led to the award?
An important criterion is the organization’s track record both locally and internationally. The SWS was established in 1977, and has been active for almost 37 years. It was first known as the National Theatre Symphonic Band (NTSB) supported by the National Theatre Trust and based in the iconic National Theatre. The National Arts Council was formed in 1991 to take on the role of several infrastructural organizations and foundations, which supported culture and the arts including the National Theatre Trust when it was dissolved in 1992.
That is also when it changed its name to the Singapore Wind Symphony. The band went on to be the first Singaporean ensemble to win 1st prize in Division 2 of the World Music Contest in Kerkrade, The Netherlands in 1993, and again in 2001. It also performed all over the world in prestigious festivals and venues like the Asia Pacific Band Directors Association Conference, the Janitsjarfestivalen in Norway, the Sydney Opera House and the Hong Kong Academy of the Performing Arts (HKAPA). I think SWS’ illustrious history and contributions to the local wind band scene over the years establishes its track record.
The NAC also looks at the organization’s artistic and organizational excellence, from the strength of its programming, the quality of its performances and the effectiveness of its governance. In the last 3 years, the SWS had worked really hard to articulate and achieve its vision to champion and support the music of Singaporean composers. In this fairly short time, the SWS had increased its annual number of public concerts to 4, commissioning and giving the world premieres of more than 50 new compositions and arrangements for wind band by local composers.
The “Singapore A Musical Celebration” series initiated in 2012 in collaboration with the Esplanade Theatres by the Bay saw its 3rd edition in 2014 has not only been a successful platform for the creation of wind band arrangements of national songs, music from our musical theatre heritage and local jazz scene, but it has given us the opportunity to work with Singaporean musical icons like Dick Lee and Jeremy Monteiro. We also had the opportunity to work with some truly great soloists and conductors including Joseph Alessi, Joe Burgstaller, Steven Mead, Johan de Meij and Apo Hsu. Their inspiration served as the ladder for SWS’ musical growth and development, and their endorsement of what we have achieved gave us a lot of confidence.
Through these, I think the SWS demonstrated its potential, and also how it could contribute to Singapore’s music and arts scene.
How successful has the SWS been in its mission to champion Singaporean composers?
I think we have achieved some success. In 2012 when I took on the role of MD in the SWS and articulated this vision, the first question I was asked was “Are there enough composers in Singapore to sustain such a vision?” and the second was, “Are you sure they are good enough and that our audiences will accept their works?” It sounded like a good idea, but to succeed seemed impossible.
It is incredible to see how much that perception has changed today. We have managed to give a world premiere of a local composer’s music at every concert – and have commissions lined up till the end of 2015. Our composers’ music has been performed not just by the SWS, but by some of the most celebrated brass players like Alessi, Mead and Burgstaller and received favorable reviews.
In March 2014, we brought a program that comprised 80% local compositions, including a brand new work “Redhill” by Benjamin Yeo on our Taiwan tour, which was received favorably by the Taiwanese audience. The commissioned works have been featured in concerts by other local community and school bands, performed by prizewinning bands at this year’s Singapore International Band Festival (SIBF) and in a concert of local works by the SMU Symphonia led by Mr. Adrian Chiang. In the SWS, we had the confidence to open and close with a local work in “Joe Burgstaller & the SWS” in September and just recently, the great Steven Mead chose to perform, not one but TWO solo pieces, the first Terrence Wong’s “Till Death do us Part” composed for Steven & Misa Mead, and Jinjun Lee’s “Variations on Chan Mali Chan” originally composed for Joe Burgstaller which Steven liked so much that he wanted to perform it.
While it is still premature to say that the music of Singaporean composers has become mainstream, I think it has certainly gained recognition internationally and locally – and in time, I am sure that musicians and audiences will realize that supporting our Singaporean composers is not only a duty, but a privilege and the premiere of a new work is something truly exciting to look forward to.
How does the SWS intend to utilize the grant, and its plans in the near future?
What is clear to us is that the funds must contribute to the development of local musicians and the local music industry. The grant gives the SWS the means to plan further ahead, which will also lead to better results because of better planning and preparation.
One of the main investments we will make will be to raise our artistic quality by engaging local professional musicians to perform within our ranks.
These “Principal players” will not only significantly raise the playing standard, but they will also serve to guide the other amateur musicians that make up the band and the young musicians in the SWS Youth program.
With a more clearly defined training program, we hope to shorten the rehearsal period for each concert while raising the quality of the concerts, which in turn, creates additional capacity for the SWS to take on more projects.
We will also be creating a new “Composer-in-Residence” position whose role is not only to compose new works for the SWS, but also to lead education and public relations efforts which will help more members of the public appreciate the work of our composers. I’m pleased that Terrence Wong, who has had a strong relationship with the SWS since 2012, will be named our first Composer-in-Residence.
Of course, the funds will also go towards creating more exciting new local works, and support concerts to promote them both locally and internationally. In 2015, as part of the SG50 celebrations, we have planned a a series of commissions that reflect the history of Singapore, and the aspirations of Singaporeans for our future. We hope that through these works, our audiences realize how important it is that our composers reflect our life and times and record these for posterity.
In the end, our composers do speak for us and tell our stories and thus, we are the only ones who can really appreciate what they are trying to say. In time, music loves from all over the world, and in the distant future, will come to get to know us better through the music just as we do the same when we listen to music from other parts of the world and classical works.
In your opinion, when and how can the SWS say that it has succeeded in its vision?
The most important thing about a “vision” is that it must inspiring and that it is audacious in its scope. I don’t think we can ever say, within our lifetimes, that we have “succeeded” – but there are indicators we can look for.
For a start, Singaporean band, whether in school or at the community level, should want and be able to include at least one or two works by local arrangers in their concert programs.
We should start to see our composers’ works being frequently performed by bands from all over the world as part of their desire to learn more about the cultures from this part of the world.
Much has been said about how there are a popular works that get performed again, and compare what our composers have created to those works. However, it is important to realize how many other pieces the composers of those popular works have written, and how many their colleagues and peers have written, that are not as popular or even known at all. We cannot expect our composers to only produce ‘hits’ and hastily write them off when they don’t. Just like any other craftsman, a composer takes years to develop his skills, and need constant feedback. Thus, they need to be encouraged, given adequate space and support.
It’s important that we recognize that for this vision should not be that of the SWS alone. Every composer, conductor, instrumentalist, teacher and audience member that are part of the wind band scene should and must share this vision, and contributing to its success. For decades now, we have enjoyed and become so familiar with composers and music from the United States, Japan and Europe (particularly the Netherlands and the UK). It is time that we, as a developed and vibrant wind music scene, give back by making our humble contribution to the wind music heritage of the world.
To find out more about the Singapore Wind Symphony, visit them at www.sws.sg!
A contributing editor at TBP.