For the past week the British press has been dominated by stories about dishonest practices in the banking industry. Indeed, the press has managed to whip the British public up into such a lather of anti-bank sentiment that merely to be seen passing through the doors of a bank is to prompt sneers and angry glances from passers-by, while bankers are now firmly established as Public Enemy Number One. So it was an act of some bravery from Donna Renney, CEO of the Cheltenham Music Festival in the west of England, to stand up before Friday evening’s concert and lavish praise on a bank. True, HSBC itself has not been directly implicated in the current scandal about illegal interest rate fixing, but the praise lavished on them was generous by any standards. But it was thoroughly deserved, for not only are HSBC the main sponsors of the Cheltenham Festival, one of the most respected of all British summer music festivals, but it was through them that musical history was made and a seismic change effected in the musical relationship between the UK and Singapore.
For decades, British orchestras have seen Singapore as a kind of staging post on the international touring circuit; a former colonial possession deserving the occasional cultural shot in the arm in the shape of a programme of popular classical standards. With Friday’s concert by Singapore’s Orchestra of the Music Makers, that relationship underwent a fundamental sea-change. Not only was a Singapore orchestra performing in front of what Singapore’s High Commissioner to the UK, Mr T Jasudasen, rightly described as “a notoriously discerning audience”, but they were treading extremely dangerous ground by playing British music on British soil - Delius in front of a large party of members of the Delius Trust, and Holst in the town in which he was born and before an audience some of whom had known the composer in person. “Gustav would have loved this”, one very elderly gentleman sighed after hearing conductor Chan Tze Law inspire his players to the very apogee of mock-Oriental impressionism in the colourful Beni Mora Suite. Full praise, here, to the wind players who added so much oriental spice to this dream of a performance.
The Orchestra of the Music Makers had an uphill task to perform. Playing before a packed – and rapt – audience in Cheltenham Town Hall within 36 hours of stepping off the plane at Heathrow, they also had to contend with the wettest July day England has experienced for decades (a whole month’s supply of rain fell during the day), an acoustic which was not much different from playing on a soggy football field, a stage which was never designed to accommodate one musician let alone a hundred of them, stage hands who had no idea what was going on (at one point five of them clustered around the conductor’s rostrum scratching their collective heads over which way up the music had to be placed) and an audience still reeling from the shock of Andy Murray’s Wimbledon semi-final victory. As if that wasn’t enough, they also had to open their programme with Delius’s Paris, a work which, if it does have any charms, keeps them hidden from all but the most passionate Delius fan.
Remarkably, the Orchestra of the Music Makers brought it off with considerable precision and if their realisation of Delius’s evocation of the city’s nightlife seemed a touch turgid, this did not upset the members of the Delius Society who sat behind me and were overheard expressing considerable satisfaction amongst themselves (“I say”, one was heard to mutter, “that wasn’t half bad” – a rare compliment from an Englishman). Much more rewarding for the rest of us was a richly detailed and eloquently poised account of Debussy’s La Mer. The beauty of this performance lay in the subtle reflections and translucent textures which Chan summoned from his players, who gave no hint of tiredness or even youthful inexperience. This was a polished and rewarding performance which fully deserved the warm, extended and, at times, vocal applause from an audience to whom the work was clearly no stranger.
For many in the audience, however, the high point of the concert was Melvyn Tan’s endearing approach to both the piano – perched perilously close to the edge of the platform – and Ravel’s G Major Concerto. The weird stage layout which meant that the orchestra could neither hear nor see each other caused obvious problems in the first movement, but with Tan’s oddly idiosyncratic reading of the second movement, injecting Ravel’s naïve, simplistic theme with palpitating rubatos and finding in it some remarkably complex and finger-twisting rhythmic twists and turns, the orchestra suddenly found its feet and went on to bring the Concerto to a truly scintillating close. The eruption of cheers – not a common thing at Cheltenham – was by no means just for Tan, and when the panicky stage management pushed him back on while Chan was still bringing individual soloists in the orchestra to their feet, nobody knew (or cared) whether the latest upsurge of bravos were for pianist, percussionist, oboe, bassoon, or, indeed, any single member of the orchestra; all were equally deserving of this fulsome praise.
The English audience are not known for their generous reception of strangers but clearly they took the Singapore musicians very much to heart. In a country where youth orchestras are dominated by female musicians, many in the audience expressed astonishment that there were, as one put it, “so many lads” on stage, while others could not believe that the players all looked “so very much at ease” in the faded splendour of Cheltenham’s Town Hall (something which may well be down to the fact that the Hall is of a similar vintage, design and character to Singapore’s own Victoria Hall). But perhaps the common feeling was expressed in the words of one local dignitary who observed; “They’re really good. I’m so glad I was able to hear them”.
This was a weekend of near-miracles in the UK - a bank being praised, an Englishman in the Wimbledon finals, rainfall of tropical proportions - but perhaps the greatest was an amateur Singapore orchestra melting the hearts and minds of a die-hard English audience.