Led by Maestro Robert Casteels, Philharmonic Wind Orchestra (PWO) will bring you an evening of Belgian music, presented in partnership with the Embassy of Belgium in Singapore and the Delegation of the European Union to Singapore.

The Band Post speaks to the two featured soloists, namely soprano Tanya Sen, who will be singing five Belgian songs in French and Flemish arranged specially for this occasion, and solo trombonist Sam Armstrong performing Colours for trombone and band by Bert Appermont.

Tanya Sen

Tell us about your music background, and the music you will be singing at the concert.

My music style is that I am classically trained as a soprano, but I also sing in different styles, including jazz, musical theatre, and opera.

I will be singing five songs, three in French and two in Flemish, which are all by Belgian composers. I actually lived for six months in Brussels, and when I was there, I went through a kind of discovery process of French music because there’s a lot of very beautiful French music out there. So two of the songs are very familiar to me because I have known and loved those artists for a while. 

One is a composer called Jacques Brel. He was a songwriter, singer, actor who was quite famous in Belgium. He’s very well known for singing songs that tell very powerful stories, and in a very theatrical style. And so for a certain generation, like my parents’ generation of Belgians, this would be karaoke music. Jacques’ songs are very, very well loved, and the song of his that I chose is actually a very challenging one. It’s called La valse à mille temps, which means “waltz with a thousand beats”. It’s a story of a couple dancing the Waltz, and it speeds up over time as they get more and more into it, into their love and into the waltz. 

The other song is by the artist Stromae, a modern belgian composer, rapper, hip hop artist, who also writes great lyrics, actually. He makes very catchy songs that are very well loved in clubs in Europe and beyond, and with very clever lyrics. His name, Stromae, is actually the flip of the name Maestro, and the song of his that I’m singing is called Papaoutai. It’s a very upbeat and very catchy song, but what you would never realise, actually, is how deep and how dark the lyrics are. Papaoutai means ‘where are you, father?’, and it’s about how he lost his father in the Rwandan genocide. 

I’m singing three more songs, which were new discoveries as I tried to root through the repertoire of music by Belgian composers and find something that I would like to sing.

What were some challenges you faced while you were preparing for the concert?

It’s the first time I’m singing in Flemish, so I’ve spent some time trying to get the diction right. Getting the Flemish letter ‘G’ is very particular and that’s one thing that I’ve been working on so far. 

What about singing in two different languages for a concert?

Actually, one of the things that I love to do is sing in different languages. My repertoire is 13 languages; I sing in a bunch of different European and Asian languages, and often I’ll actually sing two languages within the same song. 

Singing in different languages is not new to me; it’s something that I really love to do. I do a lot of mashups of songs from different parts of the world, and I’ve done a couple of concerts which are themed around travelling the world through songs. I have also sung in various different language styles within the same concert, from Brazilian Bossa Nova to Mandarin songs to Malay. So singing in different languages is something that I really love to do, and I do frequently, but this was an opportunity for me to sing in Flemish, which I haven’t done before.

How is it like to be singing with the wind band? Is this your first time as well? 

I used to sing with a jazz big band actually, so in some ways it reminds me of that. It’s a bit different, of course, but it has been fun. I think it’s getting used to the different types of sound. What’s really interesting about it, actually, is that these arrangements are quite fun, especially some of these songs. 

For example, I’ve been listening to Stromae for a long time and his music would be classified as EDM, but to hear that through wind instruments is very interesting. I was very curious to see how the arrangements would work out, and they are very creative, because they are obviously rearrangements for a wind orchestra of songs that didn’t necessarily have any wind instruments in them. So it’s really cool to see that come alive.

What can the audience look forward to? 

The audience can look forward to a musical tour, to a country they may not have thought about, but is actually very cool and very interesting. It’s a small country in Europe that has some very rich music, and I think the audience should think of it as a little bit of a musical travel, of songs that span very different eras, and the instrumental music as well. 

Sam Armstrong

What are your thoughts on playing Colors for trombone with PWO?

Colors is a piece that I’ve known for a long time. Of course, it was written in 1998 and it’s been recorded by some of the greatest trombone players today. It’s a piece that I’ve also taught quite a bit – several of my students have performed this for their senior recitals. 

I remember Hendrik Kwek preparing for his senior recital right before the lockdowns. He was having rehearsals but never got the chance to play it. William Yee from YST has performed the entire work; and just recently trombonist Jing Lun from NAFA has also performed it. So this work is beloved by trombonists in Singapore and it’s very often requested by students who ask me about learning the piece, and the playing experiences that come with it.

The work has a lot of beautiful melodies and it’s very attractive to audiences, so I understand why they want to play it. But there’s just a couple of bits in it that really are so virtuosic and challenging that I think keep many youngsters from ever really performing it. Just in my recent memory, I’ve seen it played now several times and I always wanted to have my own go at it, although I was still kind of hesitant and scared of it in some ways, because there are three bits in particular that have always challenged me.

So when I was asked to perform with PWO, I kind of have this rule now that if I’m given such a wonderful opportunity, I can’t say no. If anything, it’ll just make me a better musician. I’m so glad that I did that because now I’m starting to tackle those difficult parts and be a little bit less afraid of them.

I’ve never performed Colors in my life. I’ve played it a lot. I’ve listened to it many, many times, especially the recording by Joseph Alessi, which I love so much. I’ve only really dreamed of playing it with a band. So this is my first performance and I’m really excited for it.

Could you describe the style or emotions that you intend to portray to the audience through the work?

Well, it’s composed in such a cinematic way, I feel each movement is really its own landscape and journey from beginning to end. 

The first movement is ‘Yellow’, which to me sort of evokes like a sunrise or like a dawn; something very grand, something majestic, like a beginning. As the piece starts, it has a really wonderful, noble quality. It goes into this lyrical cantabile theme with a high E in the trombone part, but opportunities to really play with great cantabile, with singing. 

This goes into the second movement ‘Red’, which is an allegro vivace. It’s more fierce and more angular. There’s mixed metres, ⅝ and ⅞; and whole tone scales, which kind of give it this searching and wandering feeling into the climax of the movement with a low C. So we go from having a super high E to this low C, towards the middle of this fight scene in “Red”. We are already in just half the piece, and you’re covering all kinds of range, all kinds of styles and colours exactly like that. That concludes into a calming, sort of a triumph, a victory after the battle, into ‘Blue’, the third movement, which is very dreamy.

It’s maybe very nostalgic or melancholic, so there’s a lot of use of whole tone scales, a kind of wandering and dreamy quality, which ends on a sustained high B-flat over four bars. It is a very special moment to, I think, convey a magic and mystery in the movement “Blue”. Once the third movement finishes, the fourth movement is already out with a bang, straight into the return of the first theme from “Yellow”, but no longer soft and legato and noble, a bit more energetic and forward moving. 

This last movement is called ‘Green’, and it’s very hopeful and full of energy. It’s the shortest movement, so it’s just kind of a way to cap off these previous three chapters and very different landscapes. It ends with a bang and finishes with a very powerful fanfare of repeated high Cs with the band.

I love playing it. The rehearsals have just been so much fun, and it’s always interesting when you prepare a piece like this. The things that you practise the most often get easier when you play with the band. The energy, the pulse and the feeling of the ensemble becomes easier, and then those bits that you sort of take for granted, even if they’re just sustained lines, long breaths, pianissimos, or deciding where to breathe; because all your breaths change when you get in front of the band. It’s those phrases that start to be a little more tricky and challenging, but the band and Maestro Casteels have been wonderful and made them so easy for me. 

So how would you describe the experience playing with bands or wind orchestras such as PWO, as compared to orchestras where usually trombonists don’t get to play a concerto very often?

It’s really night and day for me. 

This will be my third performance with a wind ensemble since I moved here. I performed once with the CHIJ Katong Girls’ School Band in Esplanade for their Limelight concert, and also at the Thailand International Trombone Festival two years ago doing William Goldstein’s Colloquy for Trombone and Symphonic Band. 

I have to say that was a really moving experience – I was motivated, inspired, and just thrilled to be on stage instead of dreading it. That was an opportunity I think that I really enjoyed and wanted to do again. So when PWO approached me, that memory of Thailand really motivated me to say yes and jump onto this opportunity. 

My daily work in the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO), is oftentimes second trombone in orchestral symphonic repertoire. Of course, it’s what I love doing as I’ve always dreamed of playing in an orchestra full time. However, the second trombonist often might get overlooked or not as special, except for a handful of works. We have our moments, but for the most part, we’re just kind of laying low and supporting our colleagues, which is a nice role in itself. But this chance to stand in front of the band and play on the stage at Esplanade is incredible and it’s exhilarating.

So going from orchestra to wind band, what I love most is to, when I’m resting in these interludes that the band has, to just be there and enjoy being at the front and hearing this incredible horn section that we have in PWO and awesome trombones and so many of them are my friends too. By just being on stage and doing this, it’s so wonderful.

Given that Singapore is such a melting pot of cultures and people, and this concert is themed “When Nations Meet” where we are also playing music from Belgium – does this have any personal significance for you in terms of performing in such a concert where it’s collaborative or cross-culture?

Well, yes, for me it’s very meaningful. 

There’s so much great trombone writing in particular that comes from Belgium, whether it’s Stephen Verhelst or Bert Appermont, and there’s so many wonderful trombonists that come from Belgium and NetNetherlands that it really resonated with me because I have a lot of friends who are working and playing in that part of Europe. There is absolutely no shortage of repertoire and to take advantage of this chance to collaborate with Maestro Robert Casteels and PWO was awesome. I thought it was a great idea. 

Personally, I’ve never been to Belgium and I am American, but I sure hope to one day make it to the country for a visit. These sort of events that are sponsored and supported so generously by embassies and these global connections, I think it really means a lot. It really gives me a lot of hope and happiness that they are willing to endorse and support us in the arts. And I think any collaboration that features a trombone concerto is a great one as well!

When Nations Meet – An Evening of Belgian Music

Sundaty, 24 March 2024
Esplanade Concert Hall, 7.30pm


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Written By Editor

A contributing editor at TBP.