Time taken : >15mins
Composed by Jonathan Shin and Phoon Yu
Performed by Singapore Symphony Orchestra and Choruses
Conducted by Lien Boon Hua
In October 2022, Esplanade marked its 20th anniversary and celebrated this milestone with In New Light – A Season of Commissions. This included Illuminations, a concert by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, named after the newly-commissioned composition Illuminations – Symphony for Organ, Chorus, and Orchestra. Grand, complex and eclectic, the seven-movement piece was created by composer-pianist Jonathan Shin and composer-organist Phoon Yu, inspired by Esplanade’s architecture and its significance in the arts scene—how it literally and metaphorically shines a light on its artists, audiences and surroundings.
Collaborative music composition is a rare occurrence in classical music, as compared to its popular music counterpart. Notable collaborations in history include the first English opera, The Siege of Rhodes (1656), with vocal music by Henry Lawes, Matthew Locke, and Captain Henry Cooke, and instrumental music by Charles Coleman and George Hudson. The late 19th to early 20th century saw the proliferation of the Spanish lyric-dramatic genre, the zarzuela, typically written by two or more composers. Besides operas, other collaborative compositions in classical music ranging from ballet and orchestral to vocal and piano works. It is not necessary for collaborators to know each other well, although family and friends did often work together in some instances, as in Robert and Clara Schumann’s set of 12 love songs (Gedichte aus Liebesfruhling, 1840), Josef and Johann II Strauss’ Pizzicato Polka (1870), and the collaboration between Paul Sacher’s twelve composer friends for his 70th birthday, which included Benjamin Britten, Pierre Boulez and Witold Lutosławski.
Composer-organist Phoon Yu and composer-pianist Jonathan Shin first got acquainted with each other at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, Singapore. Their friendship blossomed especially in 2014, over a common passion for late-night suppers, poetry, Monty Python sketches and of course, music. Over the years, the duo has actively supported and performed each other’s works, most recently, with Shin on the piano for Phoon’s Fantasia on “Lenggang Kangkung”, a potpourri of entangled themes on the popular Malay folksong, and with Phoon on the organ for Shin’s bluegrass jazz take on Bach, Postlude to “Allein Gott in der Hoh sei Her” (After J. S. Bach). They also collaborated on the scriptwriting for the digital production, The Senate of Birds, a multidisciplinary five-part online series co-produced by Phoon.
Phoon and Shin’s distinctive styles make their collaborations all the more compelling. Collectively, they bring to the table a powerful array of influences. For Phoon, whose main muse is Johann Sebastian Bach, polyphony is an integral part of his compositions. Shin, whose works reveal an attention to color and dramaturgy, takes inspiration from Benjamin Britten, Dmitri Shostakovich, Henri Dutilleux, James MacMillan, Lili Boulanger and Maurice Duruflé. Both musicians value a certain je ne sais quoi in each of their works and performances—a turn, or an idiosyncrasy that draws the audience in, connecting them with the composer or performer’s sound world. It is befitting that a new work about the intricacies of human connection and collaboration be borne through a collective spark between these two young craftsmen, whom, despite being close friends and having experienced countless musical relationships, had yet to meld both of their exceptional minds into a singular work.
Illuminations pays tribute to how Esplanade literally and metaphorically shines a light on its artists, audiences and surroundings. Besides understanding the ways in which light interacts with Esplanade and its surroundings, Phoon and Shin recalled their own memories at the centre, not just from being on the stage, but also off it—from the bubbling backstage adrenaline, to quiet moments in the library; from contemplative strolls at the Roof Terrace, to gregarious post-concert dinners at Makansutra Gluttons Bay. The composers pondered upon the significance of these shared experiences, connecting all who have encountered the centre in one way or another.
To represent the sheer magnitude of these individual and collective energies past and present, Illuminations is a seven-movement choral symphony, carrying a sublimity reminiscent of Gustav Mahler’s famous words, “A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.” Written the structure of a palindrome guiding the flow and form of its movements, Phoon and Shin took inspiration from their favorite poets like Emily Dickinson, Louise Glück, Seamus Heaney and Theophilus Kwek, describing the metaphysicality of people giving and receiving light at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, over two electrifying decades and counting.
A lone violin melody rises slowly above a near-white canvas of sound. The flicker motif is introduced, and the orchestra blooms in preparation for the choirs’ entry.
ii. coruscating | strand
“Break the earth, and shatter sky!”—the chorus sings the construction of the Esplanade: millions of tons of earth, of silt and sand are shifted. This is music of movement, of massive collaboration. A literal and metaphorical bridge between ground and sky is hewn into existence.
Lyrics – coruscating
Break the earth and shatter sky
Turn out sediment, redraw
The veering lines of land
To carve new memory of shore,
of soil, rock, of stone and sand.
[break; turn; shatter; carve; redraw]
Write over palimpsest
Of garden and city and strand
Shape the quickening bay
that rushes to meet the sea.
Steel, brick, wood, clay—
Thousands of hours, thousands of hands
A symphony rises into the air
made real by our dreaming
Clothed in glass,
and crowned to shimmer
silver in sun.
Rivulets of virtuosic organ-playing run against the gentle strains of the orchestra. The music depicts the 10,000-odd shimmering aluminium plates that clothe the two halls.
iv. iridescent | electric
The imaginative eyes of children see many wondrous things we adults miss. Here, the skyscrapers around the bay tower and watch over the river like steel giants; the myriad colours they reflect in the waters at night flash and flick like fishes.
Lyrics – iridescent | electric
What flash of fin that zips through the sea?
What colourful tail, so fierce and free,
And silent, slipping soundless, sliding
Smooth, so swift, a school of fish
Slick on the shimmering surface of sea!
Loom, terribly tall, they loom
A gathering of giants around the quay
Hundreds of tons of marble feet
They tower over the water
Their heads scraping the skies
Watching the world with shining eyes
To cast their colours upon the bay
And fleck the foam with slivers of gold
And gleaming silvers on crimson folds
and dazzling dashes of blue and white,
Electric reds on a neon night
Whizzing and fizzing, the photons are flying
They shoot through the air at a speed quite bewildering
(What flash of fin!)
Crashing, unerring, a-dancing and skimming the waves
Skim the waves, the glittering waves,
The fish delight in the darting light!
Such flash of fin that zips through the sea!
Such colourful tail, so fierce and free,
And silent, slipping soundless, sliding
Smooth, so swift, a school of fish
(What fish, such fish, what fish)
Slick on the shimmering surface of sea!
In the afternoon sun the city-island pulsates with heat and light. The piano takes on a soloistic role in a fierce and busy dialogue with the orchestra.
Our indomitable spirit glows strong in dark times. The chorus sings at the height of the symphony: “Keeping The Light!”
Lyrics – glow
Soft, this gentle flame
In quiet darkness glows
And spreads its boundless wing
Long was the night, and moonless,
The stars, a distant memory
And days cloaked in shadow,
Slow, this gentle flame
In quiet darkness grows
And spreads its boundless wing
A sweeping wave
A rushing tide
Of tender warmth and light!
Rushes along the walls
In unfettered flight
Flutters and fills—
The distant corners
This gentle flame that grows,
Keeping the light!
Inspired by the terrifying stories and myths of old civilisations when they witnessed the aurora before the advent of science, the finale captures a sense of reverential respect, mixed with both fear and wonder. The orchestra emanates an aurora of hope, love, and awe, drawing Illuminations to a close.
LIEN BOON HUA
Lien Boon Hua is the artistic director of Wayfarer Sinfonietta, and former assistant conductor of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in Katowice. He is on faculty at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music in Singapore and leads its contemporary music ensemble, OpusNovus. He was selected to be on the 2019/20 Peter Eötvös Foundation Mentoring Program and served as assistant conductor to the Richard-Strauss-Festival 2018 in Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
Highlights of Lien’s recent seasons include debuts with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Hong Kong Sinfonietta, Jakarta Simfonia Orchestra, NFM Wrocław Philharmonic, Polish Baltic Philharmonic, Kraków Philharmonic and Transylvania State.
Philharmonic Orchestra; and has led productions of operas by Britten, Rossini, Mozart and Salieri in Singapore. He has made appearances at the Singapore International Festival of Arts, Gdańsk Music Festival and International Mozartiana Festival, and has participated in masterclasses with distinguished conductors at prominent festivals such as in Lucerne, Pärnu, Tanglewood, Seoul and Colorado.
Currently based in Singapore, Lien holds conducting and performance degrees from Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and Eastman School of Music, where he was awarded the Walter Hagen Conducting Prize for his outstanding achievements.
Composer I Piano
Jonathan Shin is a Singaporean composer-pianist who performs extensively as a soloist and chamber musician and improvises across multiple genres. He has won prizes for his piano performances in North American and European competitions, as well as awards in all age categories at Singapore’s National Piano and Violin Competition. Shin’s music has been described by The Straits Times as “supremely confident and comfortable in its own skin.” His first commission The Other Merlion and Friends, was critically reviewed as “probably the most compelling and worthwhile new work from any Singaporean composer in recent years.”
Shin’s chamber, orchestral, and dramatic works have premiered and been performed across Asia, Europe and North America. He is also a founding member of the Lorong Boys, a multi-genre group.
Composer I Organ
As an organist and composer, Phoon Yu is active in Singapore and the United States. He performed solo in the Victoria Concert Hall Organ Series from 2015 – 2022, as well as at multiple venues in Singapore, the Netherlands, and the United States. Recent concerts include his performances at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine and Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, St. David’s Episcopal Church in Baltimore, Hitchcock Presbyterian Church in Scarsdale, New York, as well as at St. Andrew’s Cathedral and the Concert Hall at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay in Singapore. His first album, SEVEN – Organ Music of Singapore, features the solo works of up-and-coming Singaporean composers and was released by Centaur Records in April 2022.
Yu’s performance career as an organist is supplemented by his composing ability. His composition premieres include works for various solo instruments and chamber groups across various venues in China, Singapore and the United States. Notable premieres include his 2013 solo piano piece Prelude (Chorale Prelude on Singapura, Oh Singapura), his chamber work Elegy for Violin, Piano and String Quartet (2014), his Sonatina for Dizi Quintet (2016) for the Dicapella Dizi Ensemble, Piece for Organ and Trumpet (2017), and his Prelude and Fugue on Wynne’s Theme for solo organ (2017). Notable arrangements include Munnaeru Vaaliba and Home (2015) for Singapore Sounds’ inaugural gala concert, his medley for about 200 violinists for World Strings Day organised by Tong Ming Xi Gallery, as well as for pieces in Spot Pocket Opera Theatre’s The Silent Front project (2020). Yu’s Three Organ Anthems was released by Muziksea, a Southeast Asian publisher specialising in choral music, in 2020.
Yu was previously a C. V. Starr Doctoral Fellow at the Juilliard School, pursing his Doctor of Musical Arts degree in organ performance under the tutelage of Paul Jacobs. For his dissertation on Handel and Porpora’s settings of Siroe, re di Persia in connection to Jacobitism, Yu was awarded the Richard F. French Doctoral Prize. He did his Bachelors of Music in music composition at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music under full scholarship and participated in the partnership between the Conservatory and the Peabody Institute during his undergraduate studies as a member of their joint degree programme. He then did his Masters of Music in organ performance at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University and was awarded the Bruce R. Eicher Prize at the conclusion of his studies. His teachers included Professor Donald Sutherland and Dr Evelyn Lim (organ) and Associate Professor Ho Chee Kong and Dr Oscar Bettison (composition).
SINGAPORE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Since its founding in 1979, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) has been Singapore’s flagship orchestra, touching lives through classical music and providing the heartbeat of the cultural scene in the cosmopolitan city-state.
In addition to its subscription series concerts, the orchestra is well-loved for its outdoor and community appearances, and its significant role educating the young people of Singapore. The SSO has also earned an international reputation for its orchestral virtuosity, having garnered sterling reviews for its overseas tours and many successful recordings. In 2021, the SSO clinched third place in the prestigious Orchestra of the Year Award by Gramophone.
In July 2022, the SSO appointed renowned Austrian conductor Hans Graf as its Music Director, the third in the orchestra’s history after Lan Shui (1997-2019) and Choo Hoey (1979-1996). Prior to this, Graf served as Chief Conductor from 2020, leading the SSO in keeping music alive during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The SSO makes its performing home at the 1,800-seat state-of-the-art Esplanade Concert Hall. More intimate works, as well as outreach and community performances take place at the 673-seat Victoria Concert Hall, the Home of the SSO. The orchestra performs over 60 concerts a year, and its versatile repertoire spans all-time favourites and orchestral masterpieces to exciting cutting-edge premieres. The SSO launched its digital concert hall, SSOLOUNGE, in 2021. Bridging the musical traditions of East and West, Singaporean and Asian musicians and composers are regularly showcased in the concert season.
Beyond Singapore, the SSO has performed in Europe, Asia and the United States. In May 2016, the SSO was invited to perform at the Dresden Music Festival and the Prague Spring International Music Festival. This successful five-city tour of Germany and Prague also included the SSO’s second performance at the Berlin Philharmonie. In 2014, the SSO’s debut at the 120th BBC Proms in London received critical acclaim in the major UK newspapers The Guardian and The Telegraph. The SSO has also performed in China on multiple occasions.
The SSO has released more than 50 recordings, with over 30 on the BIS label. The most recent critically acclaimed albums include a Rachmaninoff box set (2021), Richard Strauss’ Rosenkavalier and Other Works (2020), and three Debussy discs La Mer, Jeux and Nocturnes. A Four Seasons album and a complete Mozart violin concerto cycle with Chloe Chua and Graf has also recently been released.
The SSO has also collaborated with such great artists as Vladimir Ashkenazy, Gustavo Dudamel, Charles Dutoit, Joe Hisaishi, Neeme Järvi, Okko Kamu, Hannu Lintu, Andrew Litton, Lorin Maazel, Martha Argerich, Ray Chen, Diana Damrau, Stephen Hough, Janine Jansen, Leonidas Kavakos, Lang Lang, Yo-Yo Ma, Gil Shaham and Krystian Zimerman.
The SSO is part of the Singapore Symphony Group, which also manages the Singapore Symphony Choruses, the Singapore National Youth Orchestra, and the VCHpresents chamber music series, the Singapore International Piano Festival and the biennial National Piano & Violin Competition.
SINGAPORE SYMPHONY CHORUSES
The Singapore Symphony Choruses is a premier choral body comprising the Singapore Symphony Chorus, Singapore Symphony Youth Choir and Singapore Symphony Children’s Choir.
Since 1980, the Choruses have seen members from diverse ages, backgrounds and nationalities. Regularly sharing the stage with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, the Choruses record and tour with the orchestra, as well as give their own performances in Singapore and abroad. Through holistic training that nurtures artistic growth and personal development, the Choruses aim to articulate an ecosystem of choral excellence. Repertoire for the respective choruses straddle musical worlds and styles, ranging from orchestral masterpieces to a cappella favourites, and spanning the renaissance to contemporary 21st century music.
In the first year of the pandemic, the Choruses released a music video, We Will Get There to rally the nation. In 2021, the Choruses challenged the boundaries of remote collaborations in music-making and presented a one of a kind joint choral production Longing, entirely enabled by technology.