New World of Symphonies

April 25, 2013

By Akshita Nanda

The classical music scene here is striking a vibrant chord as new ensembles of professionals and amateurs offer concert-goers more options than before.

To attract audiences, many are going beyond traditional repertoire. For its debut, the newly formed Metropolitan Festival Orchestra will be playing a live soundtrack to The Fellowship Of The Ring movie at The Star Performing Arts Centre in June this year.

Two decades ago, there was just the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) and a few community orchestras, such as the Singapore Wind Symphony and Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra. Now, Singapore is home to a dozen musical groups which are critically acclaimed here and overseas.

Set up earlier this year, the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra joins a growing number of all-professional ensembles headlined by freelance musicians as well as current members of the SSO. These include the re:mix chamber orchestra, founded in 2006 - its first CD released last year was among Life!'s top picks of the year - the Take 5 Piano Quintet, founded in 2007, and the three-year-old Orchestra and Voices of the East Indies.

Then there are recognised semi-pro orchestras of students and professional performers, such as The Philharmonic Orchestra, founded in 1998, and the five-year-old Orchestra of the Music Makers. The latter is made up of music students who just want to keep playing, yet their passion and technique were good enough to land the group the role of resident orchestra at two noted British music festivals last July - the Lichfield Music and Cheltenham Music festivals.

All this is happening against a backdrop of buoyant attendances at classical concerts. Even flagship orchestra SSO has had an infusion of new blood and wants to reach out to new audiences through live performances of film soundtracks.

It is an exciting time for music lovers such as DrGeh Min, 63, former president of the Nature Society. "I have been attending concerts since the early 1970s, but they were few and far between till the inception of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra," she says. "There are so many orchestras now. I've heard all sorts."

Health-care consultant Joshua Goh, 62, a fan of the Orchestra of the Music Makers, says: "Technically, they may be amateurs, but their passion overflows. The sense you get with the performance is that it is something the performers enjoy doing as opposed to work."

Music watchers say the growing number of musical ensembles here is a consequence of better infrastructure, such as more music programmes in schools and new venues for performance, including the School of the Arts and The Star Performing Arts Centre in Buona Vista, which opened last November.

Nanyang Academy of Fine Art's (Nafa) head of music and founder of The Philharmonic Orchestra, Lim Yau, 60, points to the fact that he had to go overseas to London's Royal College of Music to study. Today, students can apply to the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music or Nafa, which has offered a degree with the Royal College of Music since 2011.

He says: "When you have colleges that produce graduates, they naturally are going to be a driving force. The essence of being an artist is that you want to perform. When you have enough people who are hungry to perform, they will organise themselves."

Being based overseas does not stop Singapore musicians from organising or participating in ensembles here. Cellist Ng Yu-Ting, 39, has been in the Murcia Symphony Orchestra in southern Spain for the last eight years, but will return here this June to play with the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra.

She misses home and hopes to find more career opportunities here. "Singapore has changed quite a lot. There are more orchestras, more opportunities to play. All these did not exist when I left," she says.

Conductor, baritone and composer Ng Tian Hui, 33, has been in the United States for five years and is currently director of orchestral activities and lecturer in music at Mount Holyoke College.

However, the former teacher at Ang Mo Kio Secondary School missed playing with friends here so much that he set up the Orchestra and Voices of the East Indies in 2010, performing Handel's Messiah with 20 singers and musicians at The Arts House. Last December, the group did two Magnificats, one by Bach and another by the lesser-known Bohemian composer Jan Dismas Zelenka.

Another concert of lesser-known composers is planned for December, but Ng would like to do more, time and funds permitting. "A lot of this music just hasn't been done in Singapore, it's fabulous music and I'd like to share it," he says.

Ng also wants to share the talents of his friends - many teachers in schools here - who rarely get to perform professionally. "What happens to our local talent? Unless you've won a competition, you're not going to be invited to perform with the SSO or overseas, but how will they win competitions if these people are not even getting a chance to perform?"

Similarly, the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra brings together artists who performed together for several years at local arts festivals under the National Arts Council's Singapore Festival Orchestra, and who now also want to perform in projects of their own.

The Metropolitan Festival Orchestra is set up as a commercial company that hires freelance musicians for ensemble projects of various sizes - nearly 100 will be on stage for The Fellowship Of The Ring concert in June.

The orchestra plans two major concerts of its own a year. To stay solvent, it hires itself out for other projects, including a March 23 gig at business school Insead's leadership conference and a June 1 performance funded by music patron Kris Tan, accompanying Japanese pianist Miyuki Washimiya.

"We're not trying to be a full season orchestra yet," says general manager and executive producer Low Jia Hua, 33, who is a Yong Siew Toh Conservatory graduate. "We'll do the projects that need a professional orchestra to come in the week before and do the job."

"There will always be things that the SSO cannot do because it has a season that it plans 18 months in advance," adds conductor Chan Tze Law, 49, who is music director of the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra as well as the Orchestra of the Music Makers. "There is a demand for our sort of orchestra. It's grown to the point where we can't help ourselves but start it."

Interest in classical music performances is increasing. The SSO reported a turnout of 80,000 for its last season, which was up 3 per cent from the season before. Houses have been 84 per cent full on average in the past 12 months.

The Philharmonic Orchestra reports 70 per cent attendance at most concerts, but like other ensembles here, hopes to reach beyond an established audience of students and regular concert-goers. Doing this requires thinking out of the box: Its New Year's Eve gala concerts in 2011 and last year included champagne, crackers and balloons released at midnight. In June, it will collaborate with local dancers to present Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring.

The SSO is not lagging in this race for outreach. In July, it will bring in two new associate conductors with experience in this area: Singaporean Joshua Kangming Tan, 36, who helmed several educational concert programmes in Beijing as resident conductor of the National Center of Performing Arts Orchestra from 2010 to last year, and Briton Jason Lai, 39, who is currently the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra's principal conductor.

In August, Lai will headline a concert of all movie soundtracks by the SSO, while Tan will conduct the SSO's first concert of all-anime music next February.

SSO general manager Anthony Brice, 36, is also considering live performances of film soundtracks. Last June's screening of underwater documentary Blue Planet Live! brought in a new audience, he says.

Adds Mr Brice: "Right now, we're just beginning to talk about concerts with broader reach. Whether they are soundtracks from Bond movies or music for silent films, maybe this audience will come in only once in three years, but they come and they know there is a national orchestra."

MAKING CLASSICAL MUSIC APPEAL TO ALL

JASON LAI, 39

From July, the Briton will join the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) as its associate conductor for the 2013/2014 season, along with Joshua Kangming Tan, 36. He has been principal conductor of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra since 2010. He will be associate conductor for the Hong Kong Sinfonietta's new season starting next month, and was its artist associate from 2009 to 2011. Lai's career began as an associate conductor with the BBC Philharmonic in 2002, after winning the BBC Young Conductors Workshop.

 

As a conductor, Lai tries to teach audiences how to listen to classical music. "We're of a generation where three minutes is the maximum length of a pop song, so sitting down to a Mahler symphony is difficult," he says.

So when he conducted the SSO in a casual concert in January, he tapped his experience as a presenter for the BBC Proms. He first got the orchestra to play snippets of a piece like Tchaikovsky's Romeo And Juliet Fantasy Overture, identified themes for the audience and only then conducted the entire melody.

 

"We have to make a difference to how we present concerts. We don't have to dumb down anything, just make it more accessible," says the artist, who has conducted well-known ensembles such as the London Symphony Orchestra and Hong Kong Philharmonic.

Lincolnshire-born Lai, who is single, is the youngest of three siblings. His parents were chefs, originally from Hong Kong. He received a scholarship to attend Chetham's School of Music in Manchester and another to continue his musical studies at Oxford University.

 

His term in Singapore - around three years and counting - has been his longest in any Asian country. He is "thrilled" about his appointment with the SSO and says it makes him feel "accepted".

 

He looks forward to more outreach concerts where he can also learn about the audience and music culture here. "I get e-mail messages after concerts from people saying how much they loved the music, how different it was, so I believe there is this huge untapped audience," he says.

THE IMPOSSIBLE IS POSSIBLE

CHAN TZE LAW, 49

Music director of the newly formed professional ensemble, the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra, he has also led the Singapore Festival Orchestra since it was founded in 2007 to play at arts festivals here. He set up the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra in 2003 and was its music director until 2006. He is currently associate director (ensembles and professional development) at the conservatory. Chan has been conducting and leading community ensemble, the Orchestra of the Music Makers, since it was formed in 2008. This year, he was appointed the principal guest conductor of the Penang Philharmonic Orchestra and also guest conducts with the Ho Chi Minh Symphony Orchestra.

Before he was a conductor and creator of musical ensembles, Chan was a violinist with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO).

But in 2003, the married father of one could not resist the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory's offer to start its student orchestra.

"If you're in love with music, it's hard to avoid orchestral music. As a musician, you want to play and the greater repertoire out there is for orchestras," he says.

"There are lots of professional musicians here who can't play with the SSO because it has a fixed membership, so they end up creating different orchestras."

Chan studied violin at the Royal College of Music in the 1980s on a scholarship from the school board and returned to Singapore to play with the SSO.

He began conducting student ensembles in the 1990s, including the Singapore National Youth Orchestra. In 2000, he became the SSO's orchestral affairs manager and also took up the baton during an outreach concert and at Christmas.

As much as conducting orchestras, he finds great pleasure in watching them grow - the Orchestra of the Music Makers, for example, has gone from teenagers intent on working with musical instruments to 20somethings with a sophisticated but attractive sound.

He is proud of how the group is tackling increasingly challenging repertoire. In June, it will perform Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 and, in August, a programme heavy on Wagner's opera Tristan And Isolde.

The next task is to recruit 500 musicians and singers to perform the epic Symphony No. 8 by Mahler by 2015.

"I think it's impossible, but everything it has done so far has been impossible," says the conductor, laughing.

NOT PLAYING SECOND FIDDLE

ADRIAN TAN, 36

Music director and conductor of the Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra and music director of the Singapore Wind Symphony since last year. Earlier this year, he was appointed music director of the Saigon Philharmonic Orchestra and the Ho Chi Minh Conservatory of Music Orchestra in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam.

Tan would like people to stop thinking that community orchestras play second fiddle in the classical music scene here.

"We open our seats to amateur musicians, but my job is to make sure that they work with professionals, at professional standards," he says.

Earlier this month, the Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra's concert of Schumann and Brahms featured former Singapore Symphony Orchestra violinist Yew Shan. The performance at the School of the Arts Concert Hall received positive reviews, with Straits Times reviewer Albert Lin saying it "proved that musical excellence is within their grasp".

The 27-year-old Braddell Heights ensemble, founded by conductor emeritus Yan Yin Wing, holds a special place in Tan's heart - after all, he came to conducting late in life, through community ensembles.

A theatre studies graduate from the National University of Singapore, he was associate artistic director of theatre company Stages and produced its annual comedy show Chestnuts from 2003 to 2007. He also worked as a naval officer. An only child, he wanted to support his mother after his parents divorced. He is single.

He led student wind bands in university and, in 2007, began doing professional conducting gigs with ensembles such as the Ho Chi Minh Conservatory of Music Orchestra and Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra. In 2009, he received a National Arts Council scholarship to do his master's in music studies at the Sydney Conservatarium of Music.

Today, he is on a mission to bring high quality art to more people - "people at every layer, from the affluent to the underprivileged". So Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra's June concert of movie soundtracks will include rollicking tunes from the Pirates Of The Caribbean and also the high-octane Ride Of The Valkyries by Wagner, featured in 1979 war movie Apocalypse Now and selections from Mozart's Symphony No. 25 in G minor, from the 1984 historical drama Amadeus.

"Let people come and see that classical music is not as scary as they think it is," he says.

Book it

THE MAJESTIC PIANO - MIYUKI WASHIMIYA PLAYS GRIEG AND EMPEROR CONCERTOS
What: Metropolitan Festival Orchestra
Where: School of the Arts Concert Hall
When: June 1, 7.30pm
Admission: $22 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING
What: Metropolitan Festival Orchestra
Where: The Star Theatre, The Star Performing Arts Centre
When: June 6 to 8, 7.30pm
Admission: $58, $98, $128, $188, $228 from Sistic

The article above is taken from "Nanda, A 2013, 'New World of Symphonies', The Straits Times' Life!, 23 April, p. 4-5"

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