There have been many orchestral performances that I have attended; classical ones, ones in studios, rehearsals, school performances, themed ones with giant screens on each side of the hall that showed film or television clips of the music being played, and even ones where actors were dressed in monster-like costumes and invaded the hall.
But this was something new. Something different.
Upon entering the arena, one would notice first, luscious red curtains draped around the circumference of the venue, as though hiding each door and entrance into another world.
And so it was.
For, once you went beyond those red curtains, a scene of Dresden-like splendour fills your eyes, as you gaze upon the stage in wonderment.
André Rieu and his Johann Strauss Orchestra (JSO) took to the stage and it was like being transported to an 18th century ballroom.
Now, many of us are used to seeing orchestras play in dark colours. The classical ones, at least. Black, usually. Or sometimes, dark red or blue. An elegant long dress for the ladies, and a black and white suit for the gentlemen. Throw all that aside, and we get colours. Brilliant colours!
The female members, the violinists, the violists, the cellists, the clarinetist, the pianist (to name a few), of the JSO were dressed in exquisite ballroom gowns, grand and layered and utterly resplendent. The male members, (the percussion, basses and brass) were docked in fine suits. Together, and against the digital backdrop that showcased picturesque scenes around Europe, it was an opulent affair of vivid colours and music.
There were many pieces played that night that echoed Europe in the 18th to 20th century. A few were also interestingly crafted, almost like a theatrical orchestral production.
For instance, ‘La Chanson d’Olympia’ (Doll Song), from Act I of Les Contes d’Hoffman (The Tales of Hoffman), sung by soloist Carla Maffioletti from Brazil, had her act and sing as a wind-up doll. Having enjoyed watching ballets from when I was an arts student, I was instantly reminded of ‘Coppélia’. Funny moments in the song had her being wind-up several times before being declared by André that she was probably ‘made in China’.
Another fun moment was when André said that everyone in the audience were now ‘members of his choir’, instructing different portions of the arena to sing as sopranos, altos, basses and double basses. After a test round, apparently altos sounded the best, the audience were asked to sing along to the piece that the orchestra and him would be playing.
This piece turned out to be ‘Burung Kakak Tua’ (The Cockatoo), an old Malay folk tune which was sung and taught in primary schools. Well, that was a delightful surprise! Against the backdrop of Singapore’s modern skyline, the Marina Bay area to be exact (although I must say, the skyline of old Singapore would have been more apt), it was perhaps one of the most heartfelt moments of the show. It was simple; a good reminiscence of old and classic Singapore, warm and full of heart.
The night continued on. ‘Carmina Burana’, was perhaps my favourite piece of the show. The undulating tones of the vocals in Carmina are, to me, always a pleasure to hear. When accompanied by the JSO, against a fiery digital backdrop, the beat of the drums with each verse, it was certainly amazing, visually and aurally.
Soloist Mirusia Louwerse, from Brisbane, Australia was eloquent in her delivery for many pieces. I adored her rendition of Andrew Llyod Webber’s ‘Memories’ from ‘Cats’ which was sung against the beautiful digital skyline of (what I assumed was) New York. It was a powerful song; reminisce of musicals and show tunes and a nod to one of Broadway’s finest.
Perhaps one of the most memorable moments of the performance was when André and the JSO played ‘The Blue Danube’.
“Something magical happens to the audience when this song is played, whichever the country”, noted Rieu. And so it did.
People in the audience started to dance. Old folks were dancing in the square of the arena. Dancing the waltz. It was perhaps the most endearing thing that I have seen of audience participation in a performance.
As the evening came to a close, the merriment grew. There were flute glasses and the toasting and drinking of “champagne” by the orchestra, more dancing and cheering by members of the audience, and a huge pool of balloons dropped from the arena’s ceiling at the end of Strauss’ ‘Radetzky March’. I never knew that the popping of numerous balloons concurrently in an enclosed hall could actually sound like fireworks.
Different and strangely interesting, but above all, an enthralling evening for everyone.
Instagram video snippets:
If there was ever a bucket list of artistes that you should see in your lifetime, I would say that you should add Ólafur Arnalds to that list. There is something truly sublime about the way he composes, and this guy does not disappoint when he performs live.
Set in an intimate studio, with minimal visual and lightning distractions and where the stage is on the floor and the same level as the audience, the young Icelandic chap made his inaugural appearance in much-too-hot sunny Singapore.
Starting off with a tad of audience participation, Ólafur instructed the audience to sing a middle ‘C, of which apparently we did really well and thus were allowed to proceed to the next level, which was, according to the artiste, a rare occurrence. The next level, had the audience sing a ‘G’ note. ‘C’ and ‘G’; a tale of simple chords.
These ‘C’ and ‘G’ notes were recorded on his iPad, delayed and reverberated, and then added as a looping audio track to his first piece. Ingenious; the era of modern technology coupled with the creative of a Gen-Y kid.
The evening proceeded on with many wonderful compositions, ‘Poland’, ‘Hands Be Still’ and ‘For Now I am Winter’ to name a few.
The entire evening took me back to long train trips around England in winter which I enjoy; the exquisitely tranquil array of grey skies and scenery (chimney houses and children playing, trees and shrubbery, and life on the other side) that one passes, the mist on the windows, and effect of pressing one’s hand or cheek against these frosted windows, just to feel the cold and the beauty of it all. That melancholic ‘happiness’. That was, to me anyway, what most of Ólafur’s music evoked. The beauty beneath that cold frosted window. The cold incandescence.
An oxymoron, you may say. But that’s what makes it all the more special.
At times, I was torn between being mesmerized by the violin, the cello and the piano, perhaps my three utmost favourite instruments in an orchestra. But, as a violinist myself, I would say that the soft ‘piano’ playing of violinist Björk Óskarsdóttir was astounding. I was actually starting to wonder how many ‘p’s (pianos) there were in the score…
On the other spectrum, there were some forte movements in another piece, played so vividly, that a few strands of bow hairs came loose.
The cellist’s playing was wonderfully refined as well, sort of like a delicately exquisite French dinner you don’t dare to touch because it is really too perfect. Of course, another part of me was reminded of NBC’s Hannibal series and the episode ‘Fromage.’
The voice of soloist Arnór Dan Arnarson. With a beanie and dance-like sways and movements, looking as though he was rapping, it illustrates an interesting contrast when you actually hear his voice. Haunting, ethereal and an emotional chill reminiscence of Scotland. A voice perfect for Murray Gold’s ‘Vale Decem’? That thought did come to mind…
The pianist (and composer himself, Ólafur) was an interesting element’ to watch perform. For, it looked as if the artiste himself was cathartically ‘transported’ somewhere as well, while he played his pieces. And, in those instances, it felt almost like we were sitting in, in a private studio practice, watching him drift in and out of notes that danced off the ivory keys, that light bouncing off a mirror. This was most apparent in his encore piece, which he wrote for his grandmother. It was personal and very heartwarming.
Although nothing from the BBC series Broadchurch was performed, of which I was rather miffed about, because I utterly love the compositions from television series, much of Ólafur’s work had a very ‘Broadchurch’ feel to it. The layering of other audio tracks like thunder clap-like percussion and repeated beats to create suspense, reminded me of the Broadchurch’s main theme. Other quiet pieces reminded me of ‘Beth’s Theme’.
It was a lovely evening, where everyone was transported to places here and there, near and far, like films and television episodes only captured in reels, we became part of an experience that was beautifully sad and sad but beautiful. The beauty in the strings, the beauty in the chords like in ‘Only The Winds’, the beauty in the layers, the beauty in the vocals and the beauty in the delicateness of the instruments.
Indeed, if there was one artiste to see in your lifetime, I daresay, Ólafur Arnalds better be on that list…