Written by Samantha Chang
I’m not telling you how to live, but if you’ve never seen a live orchestra, you don’t know the true breadth and depth of human experience.
Hyperbole aside, I know orchestra viewings are not exactly cheap. Fortunately, we have our very own student-run ensemble who regularly puts on shows at a modest price. The best part? They’re skilled, passionate, and arguably as professional as any orchestra out there.
I had the pleasure of catching Sunway University Ensemble’s latest concert “Crayons”, on Saturday, the 6th of April. The theme was that there was no theme: ‘Crayons’ was about highlighting the diversity of genres in music, and every piece chosen was as unique and essential as each colour in a box of crayons. They compiled songs from a variety of origins, cultures and time periods.
Our world tour kicked off in Puerto Rico with the song “El Cumbanchero”. Opening with energetic congo drums and playful Spanish yelling (“EELLLLL CUMBANCHEEERO”), the piece arrested the audience, who was already excited with anticipation. Keeping with the mood, it transitioned perfectly into a cheerful Thai song, “Koo Gud”. These rhythmic, upbeat songs showcased how coordinated the ensemble was, how they flowed as one; it was amusing to watch the percussionists unconsciously bob their heads in sync.
After zest, comes rest: the pace of the night slowed with the swelling, lovelorn melodies of the Titanic soundtrack. It was easy to appreciate the ensemble’s attention to detail – they went so far as to screen the most riveting scenes from the movie, so that the audience could relive it even more vividly than before.
As if we weren’t already crying from “My Heart Will Go On”, the emcee proceeded to warn us that the show was about to get darker with the ‘black crayon’ of the repertoire, Mozart’s “Symphony No. 40”. Everyone will recognize the anxious violins of this symphony – in fact, it’s been played for laughs and used in meme videos – but few know that Mozart wrote it to reflect the turmoil he felt amidst piling bills and his daughter’s death.
The ensemble went the extra mile by inviting Sunway University Chinese Orchestra (SUCO) to play traditional Chinese instruments on “Oogway Ascends” from the Kung Fu Panda soundtrack. The erhus and the pipas transported us back in time and immersed us all in an otherworldly atmosphere.
And of course, to really drive home the Chinese-ness, they brought out a prodigious, whiz-kid conductor whose skill would’ve probably made our parents go, “Haiih, why can’t you be like him?”
Speaking of historical, we were also treated to “Cinema Paradiso”, a lovely, yearning tune plucked from a movie set in wartime. If that wasn’t enough, they made us nostalgic with a Studio Ghibli number, the whimsical “My Neighbor Totoro”. We also walked “In a Persian Market” and witnessed the hustle and bustle of an exotic bazaar – a scene painted by plucky flute tones, romantic strings, and grand trumpets.
One collaboration was apparently not enough, as they went on to welcome a couple of soloists and even the Sunway University Choir to join them on stage. The first soloist, Alvin riled up the hall with a romantic pop favorite, Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect”. The crowd swooned as he crooned and they lit up the place with lighters and cellphones.
Another soloist was introduced to lead the hit musical number “This is Me” – but I guess they were feeling particularly inclusive, as they proceeded to recruit the crowd to sing backup. Optimistically, the conductor turned around to train the audience (“When I go like this, you sing aaaah”) before conducting them throughout the song. A powerful chorus of voices echoed (zing!) through the air, making this self-affirming anthem all the more hair-raising.
The night came to a dramatic climax with Queen’s epic, sing-along anthem “Bohemian Rhapsody”. A hush fell on the audience as they watched the choir, dressed in all-black, file in one by one. They took us on a wild ride, with grand crashing cymbals and blaring horns – proving that you don’t need an electric guitar to be rock-and-roll. Even the choir forwent most of the lyrics and opted instead to sing the chorus in ominous vowels.
The gripping performance would have been a memorable end to the night, but the audience was still hungry for more. Yet, it truly seemed over – their cries for an encore fell on deaf ears as the crew defiantly continued in their clean up. In the best fake out ever, a few chairs were brought back on stage, and then more, then finally – instruments, which was when the crowd erupted into cheers.
The basses streamed in, followed by the cellos, and soon enough the violins, the percussions, the winds etc. Gradually, they all made their way back, building the classic “Ode to Joy” layer upon layer.
Afterwards, the conductor made a small speech to explain that the last act symbolized the history of the ensemble. They started out small, hence the name “ensemble”, and with time grew large enough to qualify as an orchestra. He attributed their growth to the students’ infectious passion and wrapped the night up on a heartwarming note of gratitude.
The dedication of the ensemble members was apparent – in fact, when I caught up with conductor Rockie Siew to ask about the inspiration behind the theme, he seemed perplexed that I was interviewing him and not his students. “Everything was done by them. Did you notice the names credited on the slides? They wrote the arrangements,” he admitted, “I only brought them together – I’m just the facilitator.”
They curated and coordinated the entire concert in a mere 4 months. “I had to remind them to study,” Rockie joked. According to him, the most challenging part was getting them to enjoy themselves without stressing out over the end product. The most rewarding part? Watching them come together and enjoy themselves.
Something tells me that was everyone’s favorite part as well.
You can follow them here to catch their next shows.