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Illuminations - Symphony for Organ, Chorus, and Orchestra

Instrumentation: Piccolo, 2 Flutes, 2 Oboes, Cor Anglais, 2 Clarinets in Bb, 2 Bassoons, Contrabassoon, 4 Horns, 3 Trumpets in C, 2 Trombones, Bass Trombone, Tuba, Percussion (Bass Drum, Glockenspiel, Cymbals, Snare Drums, Crotales, Tubular Bells, Tam-tam, Toms, Triangle), Harp, Organ, Piano, Strings, Children's Choir (SSA), 2 Choruses (SATB)

Duration: 33'

Illuminations pays tribute to how Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay literally and metaphorically shines a light on its artists, audiences and surroundings. Besides understanding the ways in which light interacts with Esplanade and its surroundings, Phoon [Yu] and [Jonathan] Shin recalled their own memories at the centre, not just from being on the stage, but also off it — from the bubbling backstage adrenaline, to quiet moments in the library; from contemplative strolls at the Roof Terrace, to gregarious post-concert dinners at Makansutra Gluttons Bay. The composers pondered upon the significance of these shared experiences, connecting all who have encountered the centre in one way or another.


To represent the sheer magnitude of these individual and collective energies past and present, Illuminations is a seven-movement choral symphony, carrying a sublimity reminiscent of Gustav Mahler’s famous words, “A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.” Written the structure of a palindrome guiding the flow and form of its movements, Phoon and Shin took inspiration from their favorite poets like Emily Dickinson, Louise Glück, Seamus Heaney and Theophilus Kwek, describing the metaphysicality of people giving and receiving light at Esplanade, over two electrifying decades and counting.


I. flicker

A lone violin melody rises slowly above a near-white canvas of sound. The flicker motif is introduced, and the orchestra blooms in preparation for the choirs’ entry.


II. coruscating | strand
“Break the earth, and shatter sky!” - the chorus sings the construction of Esplanade: millions of tons of earth, of silt and sand are shifted. This is music of movement, of massive collaboration. A literal and metaphorical bridge between ground and sky is hewn into existence.


III. shimmering

Rivulets of virtuosic organ-playing run against the gentle strains of the orchestra. The music depicts the 10,000-odd shimmering aluminum plates that clothe the two halls.


IV. iridescent | electric
The imaginative eyes of children see many wondrous things we adults miss. Here, the skyscrapers around the bay tower and watch over the river like steel giants; the myriad colors they reflect in the waters at night flash and flick like fishes.


V. incandescent

In the afternoon sun the city-island pulsates with heat and light. The piano takes on a soloistic role in a fierce and busy dialogue with the orchestra.


VI. glow

Our indomitable spirit glows strong in dark times. The chorus sings at the height of the symphony “Keeping The Light!”


VII. aurora

Inspired by the terrifying stories and myths of old civilizations when they witnessed the aurora before the advent of science, the finale captures a sense of reverential respect, mixed with both fear and wonder. The orchestra emanates an aurora of hope, love, and awe, drawing Illuminations to a close.


(Synopses taken from the programme notes of the premiere performance and the full score; credits: Choy Siew Woon)


Illuminations was written on commission from Esplanade – Theatres by the Bay for its 20th anniversary, with both Phoon Yu and Jonathan Shin selected as co-composers. It received its premiere on 5 November 2022 at the Esplanade Concert Hall, performed by the Singapore Symphony Chorus, the Singapore Symphony Youth Choir, and the Singapore Symphony Children’s Choir, under the baton of Dr. Lien Boon Hua. Both composers were also present as performers and soloists (Phoon Yu for 'Shimmering' and Jonathan Shin for 'Incandescent').

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