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About Leong Yoon Pin

Often regarded as the doyen of Singaporean composers, his work has left an indelible mark on the classical music scene. Not only was he a prolific composer with a sizeable output of music for many different instrumental combinations, he was also a mentor to several eminent composers and practitioners who have gone on to shape the future of Singaporean classical music. 

As the founder and conductor of several choirs in the 1950s (most notably the still-active Metro Philharmonic Society Choir), most of Leong’s earliest forays into writing music were a matter of necessity. The fear of communist influences affecting the stability of local society at the time had led to the banning of many songs from China. As a result, there was a substantial dent on the available choral repertoire. These unfavourable circumstances provided the impetus for Leong to create new repertoire from scratch, which led to his earliest choral compositions and arrangements, perhaps the genre of music that he is best known for today.

In the 1960s, he expressed the desire for a distinct Singaporean expression in local classical music: his studies in France with eminent composer-educator Nadia Boulanger were undertaken with the purpose of “evolving a national style of musical composition representing the multi-cultural background of Singapore.” While he softened his position in later years, acknowledging the cosmopolitan nature of Singapore and the time required for the emergence of an “artistic identity”, Leong never stopped drawing from the wellspring of regional influences that being in Singapore offered him.

Much of the music he wrote reflected ideas from an assortment of regional cultures ranging from ancient Chinese mythology to Malay folk songs. Notable is his popular Dayong Sampan Overture, a musical metamorphosis on the eponymous tune – this was the first local work to be performed by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. Other significant works include Episodes in Journey to the West, an orchestral reflection on the well-known Chinese novel. Occasionally his music took inspiration from cultures more distant – his orchestral Gegantala was inspired by a trip to Mongolia and emulates the qualities of her traditional music and dances.

Perhaps most endearing are the many works that conjure up the scenes and sounds of Singaporean society, this very much evident in several of Leong’s choral compositions – nostalgia and relatability were powerful ingredients in his compositional toolkit. Street Calls conjures up scenes of street hawkers plying their trade in Cantonese dialect, while Dragon Dance employs onomatopoeic sounds to simulate the festive cacophony of the ethnic Chinese dance. One of the more eclectic offerings in this manner is his Sunset, which evokes a fictional scene of multi-racial workers returning home at the end of a work day: in a compact five minutes, he sets a combination of texts in four different languages while employing musical elements from traditions of Malay, Indian and Chinese origin.

In this spirit, his numerous compositional contributions have provided the most explicit answer to what a Singaporean flavour or identity in concert music could sound like, providing a framework that some local composers today continue to iterate and build on.

 

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