LS TRAVELS: SINGAPORE

Last month, the London Sinfonietta gave Singapore a taste of all things Steve Reich. Conducted by Andrew Gourlay and with Steve himself performing, the concert at Esplanade ended with a standing ovation. Pianist Antoine Françoise shares his diary of the tour:

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Day 1
Sunday 13 March – travel day

Here we go  early check in at Heathrow, on our way for a fun trip to Singapore playing Music for 18 Musicians by Steve Reich. It is my first time playing this piece and a bit of a teenage dream coming true as I’ve loved it for so long. It’s nice to play it with London Sinfonietta; most of the players have done it many times but it feels like they are all just as pleased as I am to play it again. Can’t wait! There’s another ensemble piece in the programme (Radio Rewrite) so it’s a total of 25 players travelling together.

After a nice breakfast at the airport, we board the plane for 12 hours of travel. The plane isn’t really full, meaning we all have loads of space. As we’ll be landing at 7.30am Singapore time, everyone knows we should try and get some sleep but it’s not easy as it feels like the middle of the day for us. I guess everyone has their own technique. Some of us manage to sleep, we all dive into our movies, the flight goes smoothly. One interesting thing happens though: in the middle of the trip, the stewardess announces some possible turbulence and asks everyone to return to their seats; nothing really happens to the plane but I get curious so open the blind to find us flying just above a huge thunderstorm over India. I’ve never seen anything like it above us, the stars so bright, below us, menacing clouds and as far as we can see, flashes of light. Every second they transform the sky completely. It is hard to imagine the scale of it, as it seems like nothing under this could survive, yet we are just above it on a plane and can’t hear a single sound. An image I am not ready to forget.

Day 2
Monday 14 March – a day off

Well, it is a bit hard to call this day 2. We have landed, it is 7.30am, yet our body clock feels like 11.30pm. The day will be hard! Some people go to sleep straight away, some go for walks, some to the bar. I end up doing a bit of all those things. Trying to stay awake is the key.

Walking around Singapore is quite fascinating: the weather is so hot and humid but the city is inviting and clean, with loads of green spaces and some incredible architecture. A quick bowl of noodle soup and I attend a free lunchtime concert at the university of arts some fusion jazz. It’s quite a social experience to see university students and their friends, and the architecture of the place is quite something. Unfortunately by that time, after a concert and a few drinks, I have to give up, and a little afternoon nap is just enough to give me the energy to wake up again for dinner. Some of us go to Clarke Quay, a very busy touristy quarter with loads of bars and restaurant by the river. We had nice Chinese food followed by a stroll along the river, again, amazed by the mix of different building designs and light/laser shows piercing the night sky…

Survived the first day, now it’s 11pm and sleep time for me.

Day 3
Tuesday 15 March – first rehearsal day

Wake up time: 8am. It seems like our jet lag is completely under control, no idea how it happened but it looks like everyone is back on track. We had a delicious breakfast at the hotel, across three servings: continental / full english / full asian (with dim sum and fried noodles), so I’m set for the day. I took the morning off to walk around Singapore, the bay, the wonderful gardens by the bay (and had a nice meal of sting ray and rice whilst there) before walking back through the business center (skyscrapers and all). I’m not made for that weather though, two and a half hours under the sun and I’m dripping like a full on jogger, trying to find the best way back to the hotel through air conditioned malls.

After a quick shower, the group is finally going to the venue, a lovely concert hall that looks a bit like the inside of a green whale, or an old fashioned cruise ship. Everything is set and we begin playing the piece. Four of us are new to Music for 18 Musicians so it’s a slow start but then we go up a gear and it flows  once the machine has started, nothing can stop it. What a pleasure to be playing it, smiles all round. Everyone is involved, giving little remarks and pieces of advice here and there, but three hours pass so quickly. Steve Reich joins us for the second half of the rehearsal and seems really pleased, his thumbs up in the air.

Even though it was my first experience of playing this piece, the highlight of the day is still to come. Under David Hockings’ suggestion (a student of his is from Singapore), we take a few taxis to a residential area, north of the city. We just have the address “block 20” and some Chinese pictograms, but we’ve been told the best chill crab is there. We arrive at what is obviously a food market for locals, order some cheap beer and a few starters then… shock horror… they ran out of crabs. As we are getting ready to jump into another taxi home we ask another market stall just in case and they show us a couple of live crabs in their aquarium. Two minutes later, the table is set and dinner starts (for the second time). What a meal! Beautiful tasty crabs, prawns and satay pork. Everything was absolutely delicious, a real feast. And now I’m ready for a good night’s sleep (after a few more beers obviously).

Day 4
Wednesday 16 March – second rehearsal day

It was harder to wake up this morning and I just made it on time to rehearsal. We go through the piece and things are really starting to groove. The general sound is getting much better, everyone is listening, and there’s even time in the piece to relax and walk around to hear the other instruments (that maracas entry still gives me goosebumps every time!)

This time we go for a safer European lunch of pasta and pizza then everyone goes their own way, whether for walks, practice, swimming or naps. It was a really chilled afternoon and we found another great food market for dinner (preceded by some roof terrace drinks). It feels like we’re finding our way around the city! And are ready to own the Esplanade stage tomorrow.

Day 5
Thursday 17 March – concert day

After a delicious and long breakfast, I decide that I can’t face the heat this morning and head to the National Gallery, which is exactly half way between the hotel and the concert hall. What a building it looks old from the outside but a French architect re-designed the interior a few years ago. It is inside the old justice court building and most rooms are kept as they were, but many of the corridors and halls have been refurbished to look like another building inside the building, with massive concrete pillars imitating trees. The permanent exhibition is about South-Eastern Asian art since the 19th century. Such diversity! It is quite interesting to see the difference between artists from Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, with different cultures, religion and traditions all coming through in their art. The 1970s Vietnam room particularly interested me as this was during the war, when such opposing things were happening: communist propaganda art, ultra realist and abstract art, very angry, full of suggestions of death and blood (as well as burning American flags). Heavy stuff but a great discovery.

The afternoon is dedicated to our dress rehearsal, and things are a bit shaky but we get through it and it reminds us that even though the piece seems easy at times, concentration is important.

I have time to do some present shopping and meet an old friend from Singapore before the concert starts. There’s about 1000 people attending, a huge crowd I guess Steve Reich is more than just a classical composer, he’s a musical cult. The first half is a success, with Clapping Music, Radio Rewrite and Electric Counterpoint. There’s a 30 minute interval to set the stage before we play Music for 18 Musicians. Everyone has gone up a gear and it seems like everything is falling perfectly in place the concentration is high and it feels like everyone is listening better than ever. The maracas entrance in the middle of the piece completely gets me, goose bum on stage! It’s a great success, with the entire audience standing up at the end. They call the 18 musicians (and Steve Reich) back onto stage three times, with smiles all round.

A few celebratory drinks by the river then it’s back to the hotel.

Day 6
Friday 18 March – home time

Unfortunately, I am flying earlier than the rest of the group (I was supposed to transfer to another flight later that day but it got cancelled) so a taxi is picking me and Paul Silverthorne up from the hotel at 6.30am. It will be a long day. The nice surprise is to see Steve Reich at the gate – he is on my flight! It gives us some time to chat (I haven’t been able to talk to him at all during the week). We talk about Scottish independence, the UK and the EU, the state of New York Philharmonic and the influence of Boulez and Satie. It made my day!

No need to write here about the 14 hour-long flight, movies and bad food, as that will never change. I’m happy to be home though, and wishing the best to all the others who will not be arriving home for another four hours.

Tired but extremely happy. What a week! I met great new people, one of my heroes and played one of my favourite pieces. It was a huge success and I can’t wait for the next project!

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