Premiering Singaporean Works at SYF 2021

Every year, the SYF Arts Presentation (AP) for Bands sees a number of commissioned works performed as choice pieces.

This year is no different, and SYF 2021 creates the ideal platform for some school bands and ensembles to premier new works of local composers, such as Terrence Wong, who wrote 14 new pieces to be performed as choice pieces in the AP.

Sometime in October 2020, conductor Adrian Chiang approached me with the idea of writing customized, flexi-band pieces for his school bands for SYF AP 2021. He must have seen it as the perfect opportunity to do so, even as MOE had not released the new rules for SYF AP then, because everyone was expecting this year’s AP to be different from usual and there was this expectation that bands would have to be reduced in size somehow.”

“It’s killing multiple birds with one stone – promoting local music on a global stage, which benefits the composer, the Singapore music scene, as well as the students playing the pieces.”

Adrian’s initial idea was to incorporate elements of the band’s school song into these new pieces to foster some sense of familiarity and identity. However, Terrence counter-proposed to base most of the pieces on historical figures and events of Singapore, and some others, on current events and scenes that the students could relate to.

“For example, the six flexi-band pieces that I wrote for the Maris Stella High School Symphonic Band and the CHIJ Secondary Concert Band are all based on historical figures from Singapore . These figures include Teresa Hsu, who dedicated her long life (over a century!) to help the poor, and Navroji R. Mistri, a philanthropist who funded, among other things, the building of a third-class ward at the General Hospital for non-paying patients in 1952. These provide the students an opportunity to learn about the unsung heroes of Singapore through music.

“Furthermore, I left the titles blank, enabling the students to conduct their own research on these figures and to then come up with suitable titles of their own choosing, helping them develop a sense of ownership over the piece.”

In the other four flexi-band and four ensemble pieces that Terrence wrote for the Junior College symphonic bands, some of these pieces touch on historical events such as First Flight, a brass ensemble piece for the based on the tale of the first passenger flight into Singapore in 1927, and The Fall, and Hope, a flexi-band piece based on the Fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942.

Others were based on current events, such as Battle of the Houses depicting the lively spirit of Eunoia Junior College’s annual Inter-House Games, and C.B.D. depicting the very lively traffic situation during peak hours in Singapore’s Central Business District. 

With Phase 3 Covid measures in place, Terrence was not able to listen to the bands in rehearsals before commencing the compositional process.

“I began writing the pieces in December – it was like running a marathon, writing 14 pieces over the span of 3.5 months; and that was when school bands were just beginning to resume practices. Having taught in school bands for close to 8 years, I had a good idea of what standards would be like, and was also able to roughly gauge the current standards of playing, given that all the bands did not have the opportunity to practice together for about 9 months due to the global pandemic.”

“Through discussions with Adrian, we considered how the pieces should be catered towards the needs of each band. The pieces needed to be challenging yet still fun and memorable to play. Thus, I wrote the pieces to be slightly more difficult to what I had expected their current performance standards to be like, wanting to give all of the students a nudge towards being able to play better than they think they could.”

Due to the extended participation and viewership of SYF AP, Terrence believes that it is a good and important platform for the introduction and promotion of locally written wind band music.

“I believe there are certainly other platforms that would be possible for this purpose too, such as including Singaporean pieces into regular concert programming, or in this pandemic – virtual performance programming. This would definitely give the scene a huge boost, because it would mean that the desire to play local music, which I feel can be as good as music written anywhere else in the world, does not only stem from a top-down approach, but also a genuine desire within the hearts of band directors to do so.”

“This is not to say that we should only program Singaporean music – that would be unfairly protectionist and inward-looking, but I strongly feel that it should be a regular part of the concert planning process rather than one that can be tokenistic in nature. Everyone – the band and their director, the composer, the Singapore music scene – stand only to gain from doing this, and it will eventually elevate Singapore on the global wind band scene as well.”

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