Choir Manager's Report: The Metro Philharmonic Society's Big 60

Ocean of Songs: The Nine Cantos

Metro Philharmonic Society's 60th Anniversary Concert

Conductor: NG Eng Kee

Soprano: TENG Xiang Ting

Pianist: Pauline LEE

Percussionists: Bernard YONG, Nigel NG, TEIW Hsien Hean, Tristan SEOW

Metro Philharmonic Society (NG Eng Kee, dir.)

Schola Cantorum Singapore (Albert TAY, dir.)

Vocal Associates Festival Chorus (KHOR Ai Meng, dir.)

Xiyao Cultural Association (YIN Yang Ming, dir.)

I asked the members if they'd like to share about their experience, but since nobody responded I will attempt the first of possibly many post-performance reviews which I shall call the Choir Manager's Reports.

The challenge is, unlike our artistic director Albert — though some would beg to differ — I'm not a man of few words, so let me lay a bit of history first.

My first brush with Mr Leong Yoon Pin's work was in 1998, as part of an attempt by my conductor for us (serial anglophiles) to sing 舞龙 Dragon Dance. Since then, I've since sung many pieces written by Mr Leong through various choirs, from the picturesque 清江河 River Qing Jiang to the folk strains of Lenggang. I have friends from school who have sung the much-loved (or disliked) 爱情四行诗 Love Quatrains and Sunset, which were set pieces for the Singapore Youth Festival (SYF) Central Judging for Choirs (now the SYF Arts Presentation for Choirs).

Through SCS, I revisited Dragon Dance, exploring all its vibrancies and beauty reinterpreted by Albert to a then-newly-formed SCS in 2015. In contrast, the scenic Bengawan Solo was the middle piece of our little triptych tribute to the late Composer doyen, followed by the snarky Nightmare, which felt like a very big work on its own.

Fast forward three years later in 2018, when we collaborated with the Metro Philharmonic Society (MPS) Choir and one of the works programmed was Mr Leong's 街头港尾 Street Calls, painting old Singapore Chinatown where hawkers ply the street calling out to hawk their wares. Each hawker's cry was meticulously executed by both choirs directed by MPS Music Director Mr Ng Eng Kee, bringing together two forces — one who sang it under Mr Leong's direction (or some would have said tortured by Mr Leong), and us who have never sung it prior — under one common goal to realise this scene through the work for the audience.

That beautiful collaboration set ablaze a new opportunity for us to come together again this year when we were invited to perform Mr Leong's 九歌 The Nine Cantos together.

My heart leapt into the project, as I believed it to be the piece I have heard as a young boy at the last performance of the work in 2001 at the Victoria Theatre, and indeed it is.

Composed by Mr Leong in 1986, the Chinese texts by 屈原 (Qu Yuan) were indeed ancient and many have debated why is it called The Nine Songs (what the Chinese title literally translates to) when there are eleven movements; if certain movements were meant to be envoys than part of the main fabric of supposedly 9 poems, though various sinologist have perpetrated that Qu Yuan was perhaps writing 11 poems "about nine songs". Beyond that, Mr Leong's setting doesn't make this programmatic work any smaller, especially so being ahead of its time, the work is frugally effective in its writing to bring out the best of each instrument's timbre and sound.

During our initial rehearsals of the work with Albert, we had Jian Zhong sharing occasional nuggets of trivia with us; and while that irked some of us who were struggling to nail the Chinese and ensure a homogenous interpretation, I mused about how much brain cells Mr Leong would have utilised to set this to music, and what more I can learn from Jian Zhong's enthusiastic sharing, especially that about the bells that were specially bought by Mr Leong from Switzerland for the premiere in 1986. A note on that later.

Eng Kee was succinct about the demands of this piece, popping by SCS for two rehearsals to work with us, and sharing his interpretation based on Mr Leong's notes and original manuscripts, as well as research done by various sinologists. Little glimpses into Mr Leong's writing process really made the piece popped out for me, as it is rare for a choir member to be involved deep enough to hear about the composer's mind.

Besides The Nine Cantos, SCS also had the chance to shine a spotlight on Mr Leong's work as teacher-mentor through the thematic performance of 3 rain songs.

Each song performed are pieces by Leong's composition students, beginning with Dr Zechariah Goh Toh Chai's rousing arrangement of雨夜花 Blossoms in the Rain, then watching a drizzle past by while in a bamboo forest with Albert Tay's 相思 Longing, and ending with Liong Kit Yeng's moving setting of local poet Dan Ying's 伞内 伞外 Inside and Outside my Umbrella. The lattermost was accompanied by our very own Chong Lee Khim.

We also had the joy of working with Eng Kee as the soloist for Longing, bringing to life Wang Wei's text of frustration and forlornness.

Back to The Nine Cantos, combined rehearsals were often the ones we look forward to, because we get to hear how we fit into the grand picture, we are thankful to Xiyao Cultural Association for hosting everybody, as well as Siglap South CC for the combined rehearsals in ample spaces for us to work our lungs with. Though it wasn't easy to put together, Eng Kee possessed consistency and mastery with the work that allowed everybody to flow eventually together, as he said about him being the conduit which the audience will hear the music through.

Not lacking was also the usual backstage shenanigans one must expect, from photo taking in the lift (like in the picture), on stage, or on a couch, to last-minute memorization work and refinement of music, we were very much like a new choir going for their first performance.

Eventually, all good things still come to an end, and friends who attended the works commented that though it was an experience to catch The Nine Cantos, it requires a certain level of understanding of Chinese texts to better immerse into the work. Also agreed amongst others is that the concert is definitely a brilliant milestone concert to celebrate one of the longstanding music societies in the country, with each choir performing works that have Mr Leong's influence (either in his writing or through his students writing), or have members who have been touched by his works prior.

SCS members found the repertoire challenging in a good way, as it is not often that we perform such chamber works, and even more so little opportunities to celebrate the re-coming-of-age for an established organization like the Metro Philharmonic Society.

We'll like to take this chance to congratulate MPS on reaching 60 grand years, and even more to come.

And for me, at least my head doesn't ring "men of straw, men of straw, MEN OF STRAAAW" when I think of Mr Leong, it rings with the tunes of the glockenspiel in the second act of The Nine Cantos.


Derrick "Not of Straw" Kam


P.S. Regarding the bells from Switzerland Yes, they are still around! Heres the pictorial proof by Jian Zhong!