Musicians who lead in the classical scene
Over the years, many Singaporean classical musicians who studied abroad have remained overseas to pursue their careers.
Renowned violinist Chan Yoong-Han and pianist Lim Yan are among the rare few who have returned here to develop their careers. And over the past 10 or more years, the pair have made waves in the local classical music scene. Besides being members of popular piano quintet Take 5, both have played as soloists with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and performed in international music festivals.
Life! classical music reviewer Chang Tou Liang calls them "two of the most active and busiest classical musicians" in Singapore today. "They are leaders in their fields and figures whom young Singaporean musicians can relate to and emulate," he says.
Both musicians came to prominence in the 2000s after returning to Singapore from their overseas studies. A graduate from Rice University in the United States in 1995, Chan, 40, was awarded the 2000 Shell-NAC Arts Scholarship by the National Arts Council. He then completed his masters of music at the University of Massachusetts.
In 2007, he was appointed concertmaster for the Singapore Festival Orchestra, the resident orchestra of the Singapore Arts Festival which ended in 2012. Lim, 35, the nephew of well-known conductor Lim Yau, was the first Singaporean to play in the 12th Singapore International Piano Festival in 2005.
He made history again when he became the first Singaporean pianist to perform all five Beethoven piano concertos in a cycle here in 2012. Chan and Lim were also recipients of the NAC Young Artist Award in 2004 and 2006 respectively. Neither has any regrets for choosing to stick it out in Singapore for the long run.
For Chan, he knew he wanted to contribute to the home-grown classical music scene. He says: "The career is meaningless if you don't know what exactly it is you want to contribute to society. My family was here and I have built a family here as well. I used that as a base to try and create something special here."
His wife is a corporate relations manager in the SSO and they have a six-year-old daughter and a four-year-old son. It was also a case of perfect timing that brought Chan back to the sunny island for good. Though he had applied for several orchestras overseas after completing his master's degree in 2002, it was the SSO which first came back to him with an offer he could not refuse - to be the prestigious fourth chair first violinist, a position he still holds.
Today, he is concertmaster for the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra, the spiritual successor of the Singapore Festival Orchestra, as well as guest concertmaster for The Philharmonic Orchestra Singapore and The Orchestra of the Music Makers. He is also a member of the NAC advisory committee for the National Violin and Piano Competition and a member of the governing board in the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music at the National University of Singapore.
Lim returned to Singapore for national service after graduating from the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England, in 2003. After completing it in 2006, he got married to fellow pianist Koh Jia Hwei and was content to settle down here. The couple have no children. He is also teaching at the School of the Arts, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music.
On whether he thought his career could have gone further if he had stayed overseas, Lim says without hesitation: "I'm not the kind of person to spend too much time thinking like that, on what would have happened if maybe I had done this."
Chan and Lim are glad they were around to witness the slew of significant developments in the Singapore classical music scene in the early 2000s. Chan recalls of the year 2002, when the country's first world-class performing arts venue, the Esplanade, emerged: "There were a lot of changes in Singapore during that period. The Esplanade was opening and it was a great opportunity to come back and see what it was all about."
Another major development was the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music at NUS, founded in 2001. Previously known as the Singapore Conservatory of Music, it was renamed in 2003 and was the first institution here to offer a four-year full-time Bachelor of Music degree programme.
Lim says: "It's great that there is the choice for children nowadays to stay here or go overseas." With institutions such as Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts' School of Young Talents and School of the Arts, which opened in 1999 and 2008 respectively, one can now obtain a complete musical education up to degree level in Singapore - an option not available two decades ago.
More symphony orchestras, including semiprofessional ones from secondary schools and junior colleges, have also sprung up over the years. "You could name just a handful of school ensembles in the 1980s, but now, there are probably 35 to 40 of them. There are more opportunities out there for people to play," Chan says.
He and Lim also contributed to the growth of the local chamber music scene, which took off in 2007. They initiated their own piano quintet concert series Take 5, together with violinists Foo Say Ming and Lim Shue Churn and cellist Chan Wei Shing, who is Chan's uncle. They were the first group in Singapore to start a series of chamber concerts dedicated to featuring pieces from the niche quintet repertoire, which are written for a piano and four other instruments. Before them, the only well-known chamber music group on the scene was the T'ang Quartet.
Chan says: "We realised there were hundreds of piano quintets not being played often enough. It was our duty to explore them and bring them to the public. We are here to let music come to life."
Back in the 1990s when the scene was almost barren, Chan estimates that only one to two chamber concerts took place a month. The number went up to about six to seven a month in the late 2000s, as more chamber music groups such as the Chamber Opera Society and I-Sis Trio popped up alongside Take 5.
With classical music having earned greater public recognition through the years, the pair are naturally optimistic about the future of their younger counterparts, many of whom have already started to make a name for themselves on the big stage.
Chan, heartened by the high level of involvement, says: "We need to have some form of continuity for the younger generation to come up and take over us when we grow old."
Agreeing, Lim adds: "Because of this emerging community, I think classical music is going to be very relevant in Singapore for a long time to come."