Singapore Chinese Orchestra begins 2024/2025 season with a twist on well-loved The Sisters’ Islands

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SINGAPORE – Composer Wang Chenwei wrote The Sisters’ Islands over eight months when he was just a teenager at Raffles Junior College.

He recalls with a laugh in the VIP room at the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO) Concert Hall in Shenton Way: “It took all the time I wasn’t paying attention in class. I actually have sketchbooks of the times I wasn’t interested and got an idea for the piece that I wrote down. But I should clarify, boys and girls, don’t try this at home, you should study for your exams.”

The 35-year-old wrote the work at his music teacher’s prompting for his twin classmates Clara and Sophy Tan, who both played the zhongruan, a Chinese four-stringed instrument.

His efforts paid off as the symphonic poem won the Singapore Composer Award for the then 17-year-old at the inaugural SCO International Competition for Chinese Orchestral Composition in 2006.

Since then, it has become a popular composition and will receive its 75th performance at the SCO’s Seamless, at the SCO Concert Hall on July 20.

The gala night kicks off the SCO’s 2024/2025 season. It is the second in a trilogy of seasons planned by SCO principal conductor Quek Ling Kiong, 57, since he took the position in January 2023.

He is giving the work a fresh spin by presenting it with Cultural Medallion recipient Osman Abdul Hamid’s Era Dance Theatre. It is the first time a full troupe of dancers will be performing to the music.

Quek says over Zoom: “I wanted to do something to attract a different audience. Rather than simply playing the music, and since the legend is from Malay culture, I thought, why not get a Malay dance group?”

Wang originally wrote the work for an orchestra first, without any soloists. In 2007, he reworked it into a ruan concerto for the Tan sisters to play solo parts.

He says: “I didn’t compose it with a dance in mind. Because I portray something uniquely Singaporean, I wanted it to be recognisable even without lyrics. I used gamelan-type instrumental textures to set up the backdrop of the Nusantara region, and when the sisters enter to perform the Asli dance, we know they are Malay.”

Legend has it that orphaned twin sisters Minah and Linah were forcefully separated when a pirate chief demanded to marry Linah. He took Linah away at dawn but a storm broke. Minah swam towar...

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