Putting SSO’s Woodwind and Brass Ensemble in the spotlight after a lengthy hiatus.
Of all the families of instruments that have been most maligned during the COVID-19 period, it is the wind instruments that have taken the longest hiatus, owing to how they’re perceived to be the group posing the highest risk of spreading transmissions. But eleven months on since their last live performance in front of an audience, and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s Woodwind and Brass Ensemble finally gets a chance to bask in the spotlight again, with the lifting of rules, and an entire live concert dedicated to showcasing their prowess.
The evening began with various pieces that showed off the various members of the ensemble, starting with Paul Hindemith’s Kleine Kammermusik for Five Winds, Op. 24 No. 2 and Malcolm Arnold’s Three Shanties for Wind Quintet, Op. 4, where the flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, and horn were spotlighted. Despite there just being five of them onstage, their sound carried and resonated through the cavernous Esplanade Concert Hall, and we felt it in our bones as they played. Each instrument stood out with its own unique tone, texture it brings to the piece and sound, each instrument certainly having a personality of its own. Both pieces provided contrasting moods to showcase the range of the ensemble; the first was whimsical, swinging between the carnivalesque and light-hearted cheer, while the second presented three sea ‘shanties’, as if the musicians were attempting to while their time at sea with song.
As the first quintet finished their set and left the stage, they were greeted with applause, before their chairs were cleared, replaced, and the area around them mopped and sanitised, symbolising the new normal and the care and safety measures that went into preparing for this performance. A second quintet then came onstage, with three trombones, a brass trombone, and a tuba to present Bruckner’s Christus Factus Est (arr. Malmstrom) and Oskar Böhme’s Sextet. Showcasing the lower, serious tones of the trombones, the Bruckner piece encapsulated the sombre, sorrowful nature of the death of Christ. In Brass Sextet in E-flat minor, Op. 30 , the group really seems to shine, with the energy and enthusiasm they exude in their performance. The song itself almost celebratory in its melody, as if heroically pushing back against the gloom this last year has brought on us, and saying that better days are still to come. In between each movement, the audience applauds, as if encouraging them to keep going, bolstering them with support.
Switching over to a rendition of Giovanni Gabrieli’s Canzona per sonare No. 2 and Canzona per sonare No. 4, the song choice was appropriate, as both numbers were traditionally used as accompaniments, showing off a range of volume and musical textures. Coming towards the end of the performance, the ensemble united four horns to play Mozart’s Magic Flute Overture, from his final opera. Transcribed for four horns, the presence of the brass instruments adds a layer of grandeur to the piece, while at times hinting at the opera’s comic elements later on, and as an overture, is a fitting way to herald the beginning of a legendary opera.
Ending off on William Byrd’s The Earle of Oxford’s March, we see ten ensemble members unite onstage, the largest of the night (safely distanced of course), with four trumpets, the horn, four trombones and the tuba. As its title suggests, and fitting for a brass ensemble, the piece is military but powerfully resonant and honourable. To see them all play with such verve, such enthusiasm, knowing that they want to do the SSO proud is heartening to watch, and we are left captivated by this concert as a whole, knowing that even if the winds die down for a moment, there will come a day, this day, where they pick up again, blowing strong as they celebrate their much-awaited return.