Friday, 26 September 2008

Doctor & Music Lover / The Ultimate Classical Music Geek

I'm not one to blow my own trumpet, but it isn't often that one gets interviewed by Singapore's national Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao, let alone get a cover story. This article appeared on its Sunday edition on 17 August. Originally in Chinese (Words by Hu Wenyan, Photos by Long Guoxiang), here is the English transcription by PianoManiac.

Chang Tou Liang drives the least expensive of Japanese motorcars, and is always simply attired. At 42, and despite not possessing designer goods or luxuries, he is proud of his life of “opulence”. “I am surrounded by the riches of the great composers. BMW, Armani and Prada are nothing compared with Beethoven!” he declared.

His name is a familiar one in Singapore’s classical music scene. To say that this family physician is a fan of classical music would be an understatement. He has been the principal classical music reviewer for The Straits Times since 1997. His columns are now a weekly affair. And he has never missed a deadline in eleven years.

Tou Liang became hooked on classical music at 14, when he started saving money to buy classical cassette tapes. These were later replaced by vinyl LPs, which he still possesses, but the majority of his records are CDs. At his apartment in the Farrer Road area, he has a room which has become his musical library. Besides ten thousand CDs, it also stores music magazines, reference books, photo albums and scrapbooks of newspaper cuttings. Due to the constraints of space, he has discarded all the jewel cases, instead storing the CDs and booklets in cardboard folders, arranged from A to Z according to composers’ and artists’ names.

Meeting Slava in 1992.
I had more hair than him then.
Now we're about equal.

Almost all composers are represented, from the Baroque to the present, from popular composers such as Mozart to lesser lights like Louis Spohr. Instrumentalists like violinist Jascha Heifetz and pianist Vladimir Horowitz have separate folders of their own. There is order to this chaos. There is even a box of miscellaneous CDs, which have been specially set aside to be autographed. Waving the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s concert season booklet in the air, he chirped, “Whenever a soloist or conductor comes to Singapore, there will be CDs for him or her to autograph!” As the editor of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s newsletter BraviSSimO!, a title he held since 1996, he frequently gets to meet many soloists and conductors. Many of the autographs he possesses are of famous musicians, such as cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Seeing the bold strokes on that autograph, one cannot but feel somewhat overawed.

Both of Tou Liang’s parents are doctors, and it was his mother who sparked his interest in classical music. He had piano lessons from the age of four to twelve, and was an autodidact thereafter. Although he has not passed a single piano examination or garnered any paper certification, he plays a mean piano. According to him, passing music examinations do not necessarily make one a musician or music-lover. “Being a musician requires great talent. I am just an amateur, but one who loves to listen and write about music,” he advised.

Too many recordings?

After the inauguration of the SSO in 1979, he became an avid concert-goer. He also tuned in to radio broadcasts, but lamented “The classical radio station used to be a valuable source of musical knowledge. However Symphony 92.4 of today is much poorer in substance and shows very little thought in its programming.” His sources of musical knowledge lie in concerts, records, broadcasts, and books and musical scores.

Life without music would be a mistake. Tou Liang cannot live without music. Music surrounds him at home, in the office, or on the move. When the music stops, all he craves is total silence. In today’s communications savvy world, he is one of few working professionals in Singapore who does not possess a cellular phone. “I do not like to be disturbed. If I’m not in the office nor at home, chances are I’ll be found at a concert. Cellular phones are thus of no use to me,” he warned.

Tou Liang has very selective listening tastes; he only enjoys classical music and some jazz. He has neither interest in pop and rock music, nor hi fidelity stereos, much preferring the essence rather than the sonics of music itself. He has two modes of listening: passive listening with music in the background, and active listening, when everything else in the world is temporarily banished and forgotten, occasionally accompanied by a musical score.

After listening and forming an opinion of what he has heard, he enthusiastically puts these impressions on paper. This has become a favourite activity, for which he created his own classical music web-log: His recent entries include reviews of the Sydney International Piano Competition.

Chairing a pianophile forum at the Piano Festival.

Tou Liang has loved the piano since his childhood, and has collected piano scores, recordings, books and memorabilia over the years. His interests also extend to attending international piano competitions as a member of the audience. In 2004, when he became the Artistic Director of the Singapore International Festival, competitions provided him with a vast pool of pianists to select artists from. With the end of his tenure in 2008, his interest in competitions remained undimmed. At this year’s Sydney International Piano Competition, he sat through 91 piano recitals, and wrote reviews on every one, all of which appear on his blog. He also attended and reviewed piano competitions in Hong Kong, Leeds and London. “I’m probably the only person in the world to have blogged on piano competitions in three continents!” he joked.

He uses the plainest of language in his reviews, covering many events involving local musical groups and organisations. “Some critics only review performances by international groups and well-known artists, but I feel that Singaporean musicians and groups deserve the most coverage and support. Criticism should not be for its own sake, it needs to be constructive as well. Only then will our musical scene flourish,” he added. Tou Liang is in the opinion that his ten years of medical studies seem almost insignificant compared with the lifelong struggle and sacrifices that a professional musician has to make. He is a particularly keen follower of young musicians, and often seeks out their concerts and recitals. He was responsible for nominating pianist Lim Yan (2006) and violinist Chan Yoong Han (2004) for the Young Artist Awards from the National Arts Council.

Buying recordings, attending concerts here and afar are the very pleasures he lavishes upon himself. “Compared with branded time-pieces, fine wines and expensive autos, the joy of classical music costs next to nothing. This is my most treasured luxury,” was his parting shot.

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