London Sinfonietta Travels: Singapore

At the start of September a band of London Sinfonietta players traveled to Singapore for a four-concert residency at their International Festival of the Arts. In the wake of last year’s ambitious and much-acclaimed The Rest is Noise festival, we teamed up with Southbank Centre to take them a sweeping expedition through 20th century music. Principal Trombone Byron Fulcher fills us in on on the adventure.

Sunday 31 August

Heathrow Airport / flight to Singapore

We’re off! After some fairly intense rehearsals for this trip and a BBC Prom at Cadogan Hall, the London Sinfonietta is off to Singapore for a week. The context of the trip is now becoming apparent to me as we’ve met Gillian Moore in departures. Gillian is Head of Classical Music at Southbank Centre and a previous Artistic Director of the London Sinfonietta. She is also one of the leading lights behind The Rest is Noise festival that ran throughout 2013 at Southbank Centre.  We’re taking a manageable sized touring version of that festival to the other side of the world – what a fantastic idea – to trace the development of classical music through the 20th Century.

On the flight, I’m sat next to someone else who’s clearly with the group but who I’ve never met – Jonathan Cross. Jonathan is Professor of Musicology at Oxford University and it turns out that he, like Gillian, has listened to many concerts that I’ve played in with the London Sinfonietta and Philharmonia Orchestra. Jonanthan is with the Southbank Centre contingent to deliver the pre-concert talks for each of our events.

Monday 1 September

Arrival in Singapore

Straight to the hotel but only after a brief stop to deliver Enno’s double bass to the concert hall. The posters for the festival and our concerts are plastered everywhere.

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2 cripped

After a brief unpack it’s time to explore. There are some amazing buildings very close to our excellent hotel such as the Marina Bay Sands but also a lot of building work I thought. However it turns out that we’ve arrived just three weeks before the Singapore Formula 1 Grand Prix. This is a street circuit night race and our hotel is one of the few that is right on the track. Preparations are well under way and I can’t help wishing the trip was three weeks later – that would be exciting!

Tuesday 2 September

First rehearsals

As well as playing our own repertoire, the London Sinfonietta players have been engaged to lead the sections of the Yong Siew Toh Consevatory Orchestra in a few pieces including Shostakovich’s Symphony No.5 and James Macmillan’s The Confession of Isobel Gowdie.

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I last played the Macmillan in 1999 whilst trialing with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. It was a bit of a shock to open the part on the other side of the world and see my own hand-writing from 15 years ago!  At least no one had seen fit to rub it out in the meantime I suppose. It was also a bit of a surprise to see Don Kow on second trombone. I had given him a lesson in London in July but hadn’t made the connection that we were possibly going to meet in Singapore a few months later (I don’t look very far ahead). The low brass players that we’re working with from YST are excellent. They can all play their instruments and have obviously really learnt their parts thoroughly too – so no major concerns there.

Wednesday 3 September

First concert

It’s wonderful to play some of the great and important repertoire again – the pieces that the London Sinfonietta has collected and in some cases even commissioned. I’m just needed for Varese Octandre and Milhaud Creation of the World in this concert. Simon Haram (Principal Saxophone) has come all the way here just for the Milhaud but it’s a big feature and he sounds stunning.

The weather has definitely changed though. There’s a tropical storm arrived and everyone outside has dived for cover. These storms and high tides can be a feature of parts of Asia. Does this explain how that boat got stranded on top of the Marina Bay Sands?!

Thursday 4 September

More rehearsals

4A daunting-looking day on paper with three rehearsals but in the end it’s not bad at all. Mike Thompson (Principal Horn) and John Orford (Principal Bassoon) aren’t required in the morning but have been invited to have coffee at the British High Commission. The High Commissioner is the chap left to deal with various affairs in the former colonies. Singapore was part of the British Empire until 1942 when the Japanese invaded during World War 2. Due to it’s turbulent history, Singapore is certainly now a bustling metropolis with people from all sorts of cultures, enjoying a exotic mix of religious beliefs (Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Taoism, Hinduism and others).

The last rehearsal today is Terry Riley’s In C. This piece marks the beginnings of minimal music and has a very flexible orchestration. We’ve taken the opportunity to mix some Eastern and Western instruments.  After addressing some balance issues by adding a little amplification where needed, we crossed our fingers that the audience would get a nice blend of yuanqin, erhu and accordion with the tuned percussion pulses and variety of orchestral instruments.

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Friday 5 September

Teaching

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This is my day off from the London Sinfonietta but I’m teaching at a music school – a fairly informal trombone masterclass in the morning and some brass ensemble directing in the afternoon. It’s one thing to communicate by playing, listening and copying but the language difficulties were more apparent at lunch with the students, although many of them speak very good English as well as several Chinese dialects, Japanese, Korean and Malay. Thanks to (left-right) Bi Tao, Lim Qi Xuan, William Lee and Li Chunyang for taking part.

A quick stroll around the market after lunch was interesting too. In among the array of fruits and vegetables that I’d never heard of or seen before were some signs advertising fortune telling services. I’m a bit of a cynic myself but judging by the queues, this service is clearly in great demand.

Saturday 6 September

Concert(s) day

This is busiest day of the trip on paper with a long rehearsal and three-part concert entitled Post War Directions. The first part of the concert (Avant Garde) contains some very significant pieces including the Cage Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano and the wonderfully atmospheric Chamber Concerto by Ligeti. These are two must-hear pieces for sure and the Ligeti in particular was really transfixing.

Brass players are generally fairly social creatures and there’s often quite a lot of ‘meeting and greeting’ going on with touring. The Singapore Symphony Orchestra seemed to be keeping their heads down so far but the reason became apparent this evening: they had just returned from their own tour which included the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. American Jamie Hersch is their assistant principal horn player and he was extremely keen to meet (his hero) Mike Thompson, London Sinfonietta Principal Horn, who he had grown up listening to and being inspired by. Jamie is clearly a really enthusiastic guy who loved London and the amazing Proms audience, which it has be said is quite unique. He also teaches and clearly enthuses the hornists of YST who hail from many backgrounds. It was a fun evening chatting around the table with an American, some Russians, Chinese, Singaporeans and Brits – a true cultural exchange.

Sunday 7 September

Finale

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The last concert is entitled No More Rules and mainly features music by living composers (Tom Adès, Unsuk Chin, and James MacMillan) plus the beautiful Rain Coming by Tōru Takemitsu.  This is seriously hard music for all of us, but in addition to playing our own instruments some of us also double on percussion. It’s maracas, Chinese gongs, metal rattle and harmonica for me in the Chin. The MacMillan is the big ending to this concert and after playing the other pieces it feels like quite a blow. It’s a powerful piece describing the very detailed confession of a Scottish witch prior to her assumed execution. It’s thought that she confessed in order to achieve some leniency to the sentence, but failed. The trombone and tuba parts are very busy for us all but the section sounded pretty solid and confident I thought. No problems, hence the smiles at the end from (left – right) Don, me, Aldwyn and Lai.

Coda

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It was great to have some of the London Sinfonietta Emerging Artists with us on this trip: Joshua Batty (flute), Scott Lygate (clarinet) and Christian Barraclough (trumpet). Needless to say, they all played impeccably. Christian’s development, in particular, has indeed reached the final stages with only the finishing touches left – here he is working on the sommelier technique!

Caption Competition

What’s up with Principal Viola Paul ‘Harry’ Silverthorne? Maybe he’s suffering from a little latent jet-lag, or is this the moment he remembered that just a week earlier, he had got Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ name wrong?

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