Thursday, 18 June 2009

NOTES ACROSS THE YEARS by Paul Abisheganaden / Review

Book Review
by Paul Abisheganaden
published by Unipress,
Centre for the Arts,
National University of Singapore

A truncated version of this review first appeared in The Sunday Times on 27 November 2005.

Decades before the Singapore Symphony Orchestra or Esplanade Theatres on the Bay came into being, there existed a rich and diverse musical life in Singapore. Inspired and powered by enthusiastic amateurs, dedicated teachers and musical societies, they breathed life into a nation that was deemed a “cultural desert”.

Veteran musician-educationist and Cultural Medallion recipient Paul Abisheganaden’s (left) handsome book Notes Across The Years is a personal anecdotal account of Singapore’s musical heritage, written with the vividness of an irrepressible raconteur and a keenness for detail. Now 92 years of age, his memory of events and personalities is admirable. He gives a broad overview of Western music (both classical and popular) in Singapore from the 1910s to 1980s, and does not neglect the ethnic and indigenous musical forms that helped make our nation a melting pot of cultures.

Names like Marcello Anciano, Gordon van Hien, Goh Soon Tioe, Lau Biau Chin, Choy Him Seng, Susheela Devi, Alphonso Anthony, David Apelbaum, Donald Moore, the E.N.S.A., Chia Keng Tai and Syonan Kokkaido Orchestras may mean little to young musicians of today, but they helped shape the musical landscape of a nation, They should not be forgotten, especially because they thrived and enriched concert life at a time when Western classical music (still considered an imported artform in Singapore today) was the prerogative of the British, and locals were not deemed to be taken seriously.

Tasty little morsels abound and here’s one cautionary tale. The great Jascha Heifetz gave a recital here in the 1920s, not in Victoria Memorial Hall but at the Capitol Theatre just down the road. The reason? The presenters wanted to make a bigger profit from ticket sales at a larger capacity venue, but the music making and acoustics suffered as a result. This led Heifetz to remark that Singapore was indeed a cultural desert.This sounds all too familiar, especially when one recalls an event management agency that presented the USSR Festival Orchestra at a cavernous and near-empty Singapore Indoor Stadium as recently as 1990 to its own demise. Some people never learn.

Another interesting chapter documented by Abisheganaden was the short-lived E.N.S.A (Entertainment for National Service Associations) Orchestra, which was purportedly the first orchestra to carry the name “Singapore Symphony Orchestra”. Formed by Scottish composer and musician Erik Chisholm (left, also known affectionately as McBartok, given his musical preferences), it gave concerts of much contemporary music in the few years following World War Two. No doubt enthused, Abisheganaden nostalgically referred to that period as the “Golden Age of orchestral music” in Singapore.

If this well-documented chronicle had been published some twenty years ago, it would have been perfectly timely. However the narrative cuts off abruptly in the early 1980s and does not adequately document Singapore’s transition from musical amateurism to professionalism, culminating in the formation of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) and Esplanade. The SSO and its founding Resident Conductor Choo Hoey get only a passing mention, while other pivotal players like current Resident Conductor Lim Yau and Music Director Lan Shui (who were not personally acquainted with Abisheganaden) have no place in his story. Perhaps this chapter of musical history would be better recounted by Tan Boon Teik or Professor Bernard Tan.

The latter half of the book instead becomes a history of musical education in Singapore, the Singapore Chamber Ensemble (SCE, left)) and Centre for the Arts (CFA) at the National University of Singapore, both organisations founded by Abisheganaden. Interestingly, one of these chapters documents the “discovery” of a prodigious young talent named Melvyn Tan, in what must have possibly been his very last recital in Singapore before leaving for musical studies in the United Kingdom.

But history has been fickle. The rise of musical professionalism in the 1980s saw amateur musical performances – including the once active SCE – recede into the background and become distant memories. Sadly, the SCE, Singapore Musical Society and Goh Soon Tioe String Orchestra no longer exist today, but their idealism, enterprise and adventurous spirit – embodied by Abisheganaden and other pioneers – live on in amateur and semi-professional groups like The Chamber Players, Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra and the Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra.

Certain musical personalities from its pages like singers Tan Peng Tuan, Yeoh Siew Lian and Robert Iau, and pianists Victor Doggett and Cheung Mun Chit have all passed on (the latter three in 2005) but the reader is not updated on them. Some of the later chapters read like a dull annual report and the lack of an index is unfortunate. These caveats are however more than made up by the historical photographs, posters and programme covers which provide a nostalgic inkling as to what Singapore musical life was like all those years ago.

Notes Across The Years, a loving reminder of Singapore musical heritage, is recommended to all who have an interest of our nation’s musical history before 1980, and especially our younger generation of music lovers.

Back cover

Who Were They?

Goh Soon Tioe (left): Veteran violin pedagogue and conductor. Mentored by AndrĂ©s Segovia. Father of violinist-conductor Vivien Goh. Teacher of Choo Hoey, Lee Pan Hon and Seow Yit Kin. Founder of the Goh Soon Tioe Orchestra and Singapore Children’s Orchestra.

Lau Biau Chin (left): One of Singapore’s earliest local concert pianists. Mother of SSO Associate Concertmaster Lynnette Seah.

Choy Him Seng: Piano technician and piano dealer. Father of veteran VCH piano technician Paul Choy.

Alphonso Anthony (left): Violin pedagogue, now resident in Adelaide, South Australia. Teacher of Lynnette Seah. Father of violinist Adele Anthony and father-in-law of Gil Shaham.


Steven said...

Sounds like an interesting book, any idea where we can get a copy?

Chang Tou Liang said...

Its not so easily available in the bookstores (except maybe at NUS) but there are lots of copies at the National Library.