Young Singapore Musicians Conjure A Dream Orchestra
By Robert Markow
TAIPEI – Ever since Singapore’s Orchestra of the Music Makers (OMM) was established nearly ten years ago, it had been looking for an opportunity to perform the little-known oratorio by Elgar from which the orchestra takes its name. That opportunity finally presented itself in two recent concerts, the first in Taipei on July 30, which I attended as the opening event of the week-long 2017 Taipei International Choral Festival (the seventeenth in 21 years), the second in Singapore on Aug. 12. The event, which paired Elgar’s oratorio The Music Makers with iconic John Williams film scores, was appropriately entitled “A Celebration of Dreams.”
Dreams can and do come true. As reported previously for Classical Voice North America in 2013, the OMM was founded in 2008, a few months after a group of graduating students from several of Singapore’s high schools approached Tze Law Chan, a highly regarded Singaporean conductor and associate director of Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, about the idea of forming an orchestra.
Their goal was to continue to express themselves in music while pursuing professional studies in other fields. When it came time to decide on a name for the orchestra, the conductor asked them, “How do you see yourselves? What is your purpose?” Their reply: “We want to make music, and we want to make it happen.” In other words, music makers. Someone in the group discovered that Elgar had written a work of that title.
The slightly cumbersome yet poetic name actually does come from poetry. Elgar’s oratorio is set to “Ode” by the 19th-century author Arthur O’Shaughnessy. Its opening lines, “We are the music makers, / And we are the dreamers of dreams,” reflect precisely the soul and spirit of the OMM – the dream to form an orchestra of their own, the dream to continue playing after high school, the dream to serve one’s community and to contribute to a progressive society, the dream to “build up the world’s great cities,” and the dream to pass on to future generations “the glory about us clinging” (additional lines from O’Shaughnessy’s poem).
Like Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, The Music Makers is a work of about 40 minutes duration laid out in a single continuous movement divided into sections. The subject of both is the life and work of artist-musicians and their place in the world. Both end in a state of quiet contemplation, and both employ numerous quotes from the composer’s earlier compositions. But whereas Strauss lumps his together in one section, Elgar spreads his out over the entire span of the oratorio. There are quotes from the First and Second Symphonies, The Apostles, The Dream of Gerontius, Rule Britannia, Enigma Variations, Sea Pictures, and the Violin Concerto. Moments of splendor and majesty alternate with meditations of deep sadness and introspection.
Conductor Chan emphasized the sweep and expressive power of the music, which at times provided the thrills of a Mahler symphony. He drew from both orchestra and the 150-member chorus (the combined Taipei Philharmonic Chorus and the International Festival Chorus Singapore, superbly trained by Wei-Chun Regina Chang) breathtaking walls of sound and intimate moments of haunting beauty. The rich, lustrous voice of Taiwanese mezzo-soprano I-Chiao Shih added a further measure of pleasure to the music-making.
The Music Makers was Elgar’s last major choral work (1912) except for The Spirit of England. “The ‘motif’ of the poem,” wrote Ernest Newman on the occasion of the oratorio’s premiere, “is the idea that poets – the music makers and dreamers – are really the creators and inspirers of men and their deeds and the true music makers of history and of human societies. Their dreams and their visions are the foreshadowings of what the rest of mankind are predestined to work out in endless conflict.”
Elgar stated that “I have felt that [O’Shaughnessy’s] ‘music makers’ must include not only poets and singers but also artists who feel the tremendous responsibility of their mission to ‘renew the world as of yore.’….The mainspring of the Ode is the sense of progress, of never-ceasing change; it is the duty of the artist to see that this change is progress.”
The concert’s dream theme continued after intermission when art, poetry, introspection, philosophy, and seriousness of purpose gave way to flashy music from film scores by John Williams that portray dreams of a different kind. There were excerpts from Hook (“Flight to Neverland”) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and a twenty-minute suite of numbers from the Star Wars episodes, all preceded by the Olympic fanfare Call of the Champions. But the real corkers were the encores – two additional Star Wars numbers enhanced by the appearance of eight fully costumed and armed Empire Troops plus Darth Vader on stage. The crowd went wild. The orchestra sounded like a million dollars, and was certainly at one with the Force. OMM goes beyond mere youthful enthusiasm; in matters of technical detail, rhythmic accuracy, intonation, and ensemble, it is essentially an orchestra of professionals, and the energy they put forth is almost palpable.
The power of the Force went beyond orchestral brilliance. The night before the concert, a typhoon was lashing the southern part of Taiwan and heading for Taipei. The city government declared all events on July 30 cancelled. Had OMM spent two years planning for this event, coordinating with choruses from two countries, traveling 2,000 miles, and rehearsing their signature piece all for nothing? As it happened, the typhoon veered away from Taipei overnight, and July 30 dawned bright and sunny. Officially it was still a “typhoon day,” but the powers that be contrived to “uncancel” the concert. Staff at the National Concert Hall was hastily called into service; the event went ahead as planned. And such was the Force of another kind — social media — that enough ticket holders were alerted in time to nearly fill the hall.
In the nine years since OMM gave its first performance (Aug. 28, 2008), it has evolved from a group of talented, enthusiastic young musicians looking for an orchestral experience to an organization that contributes regularly and significantly to Singapore’s diverse orchestral landscape. It has also made foreign forays to England, Malaysia, and Taiwan. Among its many ambitious projects, OMM presented Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand as its “Gift to the Entire Nation” on the occasion of Singapore’s 50th anniversary as an independent state in August 2015. In June 2017, OMM ventured into opera for the first time, with two sold-out performances of a semi-staged Hansel and Gretel in Singapore’s iconic Esplanade Concert Hall.
OMM has been self-governing from the start, and the extra-musical talents and skills of its members have produced an organization that thrives not just musically but managerially as well. “OMM’s greatest strength lies in its administration,” observes Chan. The average age of its members has grown from about 18 to 26, and its pool of musicians to about 160. Most of OMM’s concerts are charitable events. To date, the organization has raised some Sg$7 million (about $5.2 million USD).
OMM’s tenth anniversary concert is slated for Aug. 17, 2018. The program will be Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, a work that figured prominently in the orchestra’s early development, and which it has recorded. It might be worth a trip to Singapore just to hear this.
Formerly a horn player in the Montreal Symphony, Robert Markow now writes program notes for that orchestra and for many others in Canada, the U.S., and Asia. He writes regularly for such classical music journals as American Record Guide, Fanfare, Symphony, Strings, The Strad, Opera, Opera News, and Opera Canada.Date posted: August 8, 2017