Inspired by Singapore’s culture and identity, renowned Russian composer Vladimir Martynov accepted a commission by ex-Singapore Ambassador to Russia, Michael Tay, to compose a symphony in 2003. UTOPIA, which premiered in 2005 in Russia and performed in 2007 in Singapore, was most recently performed and recorded by the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) and London Philharmonic Choir in Abbey Road.
The symphony will be performed live in Singapore at the Esplanade in 2022. SGN goes behind the scenes and speaks to Vladimir Martynov on his creative process in creating UTOPIA and his experience getting to know about Singapore’s rich culture.
22 February 2021 / By SGN
In 2003, then-Singapore Ambassador to Russia, Michael Tay, commissioned renowned Russian composer Vladimir Martynov to compose a symphony inspired by Singapore with the aim to bring both nations together. The symphonic piece, first titled ‘Singapore: A Geopolitical Utopia’, premiered in Russia in 2005 and was performed again in 2007 by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra at the Esplanade Theatres by the Bay to then- Singapore Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and then- Singapore President S R Nathan.
Now renamed UTOPIA, the symphony will be performed live in Singapore at the Esplanade in 2022. The symphony will be performed by the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra under the baton of Professor Chan Tze Law from the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, featuring Singapore violinist Loh Jun Hong as the soloist.
In November 2019, UTOPIA was recorded by the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) under the baton of LPO’s Principal Conductor Vladimir Jurovsky at the legendary Abbey Road Studios in London – the same recording studio immortalised in music history by The Beatles.
“We have been cooperating with the LPO for about two years for this project, and I’m also especially happy that this happened at the Abbey Road studio where the Beatles, whom I consider gods, were recorded!” Vladimir (Martynov) exclaims.
Discovering UTOPIA in Singapore
Prior to composing UTOPIA, all that Vladimir knew about Singapore was that it was a foreign country with foreign people – an expression he likened to that of the first movement (Von fremden Ländern und Menschen) in Schumann’s Kinderszenen, which inspires him to get acquainted with the unfamiliar.
To experience Singapore’s culture, heritage and its people, Vladimir took up Michael’s offer to visit the city in March 2005 with his wife, distinguished violinist Tatiana Grindenko. During this trip, the couple had met with local musicians and artists, and even stayed at the historic site of Raffles Hotel – an experience that he says was deeply connected to the composition of UTOPIA.
“I was most impressed in Singapore by the combination of high-tech with deep archaic architecture, which is reflected in the architecture of skyscrapers that take Feng Shui into account. And in general, high-tech and Feng Shui are what I care about in the deepest degree,” Vladimir recounts.
Similarly, the libretto in UTOPIA combines influences from American minimalism and Russian Orthodox chant with the classic text of the Tao Te Ching to reimagine the concept of utopia with sound. The Tao Te Ching, a Chinese classic text credited to Laozi, is widely regarded as a fundamental text for philosophy and religious Taoism and had served as Vladimir’s source of inspiration.
“When I think about my country or any other country, Tao Te Ching is the matrix that shines through my thoughts,” he says. “When I received a commission to write a work about Singapore, I somehow correlated the city’s modern realities with the utopia of Tao Te Ching.”
This artistic impulse was also reflected in the naming of the English version of the piece. For Vladimir, utopia was not a destination or a state of being. Rather, it was a process of becoming and striving to do better – a trait which he found interweaved in Singapore.
Strengthening Bilateral Ties through Music
Vladimir likens his collaboration with Michael to how Count Razumovsky had provided Beethoven with a collection of Russian folk songs when the Count was then an ambassador to Vienna. “I’m not comparing myself to Beethoven… [but] I think Michael has accomplished the same feat by connecting Russia with Singapore” he says.
Vladimir has worked on many compositions and some are slated to premiere soon. This includes his works with the Kronos Quartet, the staging of Vita Nuova in Ufa, and the “Vertep” (Nativity Scene) in Zaryadye. That said, Vladimir still thinks that UTOPIA remains one of his most unusual commissions he had worked on.
“To me, Singapore manages to capture the essence of “utopia” very well by constantly reinventing itself, and its citizens striving to better themselves and the people around them, which is the essence of the vision that Singapore was founded on,” he says. “I am excited to watch it be resurrected in concert halls across the world.”
UTOPIA, a symphony about Singapore commissioned by Michael Tay and composed by Russian composer Vladimir Martynov, will be performed live in Singapore at the Esplanade in 2022 (postponed from March 2021). Click here to listen to the full symphony on Spotify!
The Foundation has limited copies of the UTOPIA CD (S$25 with shipping) for purchase. To order, donate or sign up to be a part of The Foundation’s One Million Towards Utopia movement – which brings together a local and international collective of musicians, artists, painters, businesses, community groups and everyday people to rethink about the arts – please visit https://www.thefoundation.sg/towardsutopiasg or email email@example.com for more information.
Vladimir Ivanovich Martynov is a Russian composer, known for his compositions in the concerto, orchestral music, chamber music, and choral music genres. Throughout his career, Vladimir has authored several books and seminal articles on musical theory, history and philosophy of music.