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 Maestro himself, about the motivation behind the concert, and the pieces that have been specially curated, including his world premiere of Symphony nr 6 and the Singapore premiere of From Ancient Times by internationally acclaimed Belgian composer Jan Van der Roost.

Let’s start by talking about the concept of the concert, and how did it become a Belgian evening of music? 

So the concept of March 24 is titled “When Nations Meet”. And like everything in life, it’s a convergence of different things; a question of time and place and people for something to happen. 

I’m originally born in Belgium, but became a Singapore citizen in 2005, and I’ve been here for almost 30 years. 

Philharmonic Wind Orchestra has always done concerts that were entirely Japanese, Dutch or American music, but has actually never done a Belgium-themed concert, even though I was the first music director of PWO. 

It’s not that Belgian composers for bands and wind orchestras are unknown in Singapore. People like Jan Van der Roost have had his music played many times, not only in Singapore, but in the region, Japan, and Taiwan etc. So Belgium has a high-level scene of wind orchestra and bands, and fanfares, and marching bands, and also has good composers.

With Belgium being part of the European Union (EU), Belgium has a presidency this year from January to June, and the Belgian ambassador in Singapore, Ms Colette Taquet, happens to be someone who really genuinely loves music. 

So all these elements together made me think, and I had a good discussion with the ambassador before going to PWO. And that’s how the whole idea came about.

What is your experience like to conduct PWO again. Is there a personal significance?

Of course, since I have been the first music director of PWO, I definitely have a certain tenderness for this group. Even with a new generation of musicians, and a desire to make good music together, I feel that I’m not just guest conducting any group, but the group which I really have a personal connection with. 

I must say that when we did our Gala concert, with different important conductors in the history of PWO; the first five minutes of the first rehearsal after so many years was very special, and it was a bit emotional. 

In this process of rehearsing the group for this concert, I am happy to be there, but I don’t treat myself in a special way or treat the group in a special way. 

The concert will feature the world premiere of “Symphony nr 6” that you composed. What can the audience expect from the work?

So this is the 6th Symphony that I have written. My friends joked that I shouldn’t reach nine because nine is, for a number of composers, the fatal number that they didn’t exceed. 

When I was writing my music, and it reached certain proportions and duration, I decided that this is entitled to be called a symphony. I then had a problem with how to end the symphony; I first wrote a very big, bombastic, large, massive ending, and then I didn’t like it; and then I wrote something completely depressing. Eventually I settled on a third version which I think I liked best and that was it.

My Symphony has four movements. The first one is introverted, sad, and grim. It’s not based on anything particular in my life, but like everybody, I have ups and downs. The second movement is completely the contrary. It’s solar, it’s energetic, it’s extroverted, it’s fast and very optimistic, and it keeps going and going. Then I have a third movement, which is shorter and peaceful, serene, balanced and optimistic. And in the final movement, there is an ending with a humoristic twist; to discover how it ends, you really have to come to the concert. 

What can the audience expect from the work? I have thought a lot about this. When I compose, of course, I do want my music to be performed, and then I also hope that the audience gets something from the music. I receive feedback sometimes after a performance, and the feedback can be very different according to the person. I don’t value the feedback of somebody who is musically informed more than an audience member who is not musically trained. 

When you go and listen to a piece that you know, you know it exists in the repertoire, and you can relate because you have probably heard it through some recordings, or have heard other pieces of the same composer in that same style. So there is an expectation, and what you hear meets what you expect, because, you know. 

If you go and listen to a new piece, you really have no idea what’s going on. So there can be an element of surprise, or the unknown. I think there is also the joy of discovering something new, like with food, people, or visiting countries; you don’t always want to repeat the same experiences in your life. You also have to trust, and spend some time and money to go to the concert, and you have to believe that you are going to get something out of it because it’s not guaranteed.

Therefore, I think one must go with an open mind and just listen; and not try to intellectualise from the beginning of a new piece. You must be relaxed, and let the music flow over you. You will surely not appreciate every single thing, but if you can hear a certain phrase or movement, and have emotions formed, that would be the dream that every composer will want to have. 

Without spoiling the surprise, can you tell us about the instruments included in your Symphony that are not normally found in the wind orchestra?

There are already a large number of instruments in this symphony, which is not sometimes something I will write in programme notes, because then people want to intellectualise. But composers, by definition, are obsessed with time, in seconds. Something is always too short or too long. Certain forms of mathematics are involved in composition. 

For me here, it’s the number five, a prime number. So then I have five horns, five trumpets, and five trombones. By saying five, I mean five individual parts, people who play something different. So from there I have a certain number of woodwinds, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, saxophones. Then with the writing, I started to amplify the percussion. I have these five cadenzas for percussion. That means the percussion go all out and play fast without any conducting going on; I made it this way so that the audience are not distracted by a guy waving his hands in front.

On top of that, I added a few instruments that are usually not in a wind orchestra. I started with the organ. The organ is sometimes in a wind orchestra, but not always because it means that you need an organ in a venue. I have a special thing with the organ personally because even though my education was as a pianist, for ten years, from age 14 to 24, I played the baroque organ every Sunday in a church back in Brussels, and I learned it by myself without knowing any techniques. So I learned to sight-read, I learned to transpose, I learned to improvise before even knowing that these things were called improvisation, sight-reading and transposition. So I really love this instrument, but I don’t use it as one massive chord at the end that erases everybody else from the stage.

Then I have the piano and the keyboard. The colour of the piano enables me to have chords in extreme high and extreme low registers, which is difficult to achieve with wind instruments. The keyboard can put different timbres, such as a celesta, harpsichord and some voices. So it’s much more than just somebody playing the keyboard. I also have a harp and a guitar, as well as a sextet, formed by violin, viola, cello, and three double basses. All these instruments have been written in a way that by playing normally, they can be heard, and they are not competing against all the brass. So, technically speaking, this symphony is written for an enlarged wind orchestra.

What about the other pieces that PWO will be performing? Why have you included them? 

Through some common interest and research, the discussions with PWO eventually resulted in four different types of music for different audiences, ranging from vintage wind repertoire, to contemporary creations. 

From Ancient Times by Jan Van der Roost is so well-written. He is definitely a well-known name in the wind band scene, and he goes back to past traditions of the Renaissance, into the artistic heritage and history of Belgium. 

After programming this work, I was thinking that I don’t want just one type of audience, that listens to wind band music. I also wanted some people who, for whatever reason, don’t go often to concerts or have a certain reticence because they think it’s too complicated or not, or they haven’t been educated. 

So I put five popular Belgium pop songs that everybody knows; everybody knows Fabian, everybody knows Stromae, and everybody knows Brel. In Belgium you have two main linguistic groups; French-speaking and Flemish-speaking, which is close to the Dutch language, so I made sure that I have both French songs and Flemish songs. Since these songs don’t exist for wind bands, we had to arrange them and then put all five songs together for the group, and getting a Singaporean soprano Tanya Sen to sing them is definitely aligned with our concert theme “When Nations Meet”.

In concerts you often have a concerto, where you showcase a soloist of a virtuosic level that is higher than the level of the musicians of the orchestra. So we included Bert Appermont’s Colors for Trombone and Band, which has four movements, with every movement titled a different colour that depicts a different mood. We invited Sam Armstrong who is from the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO), and he will play this concerto with PWO. 

So I think this entire concept has variety, has contrast and is well-balanced and can cater to the tastes of different people who will probably come attracted by one of the four components. But by the same token, after attending this concert, they would have also heard something else or discovered something new.

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.