Friday, 2 October 2009


The following article, a short history of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, was published in the October 2009 issue of AMICA, under the title The Sound of Music.


It all began with sometime in the mid-1970s when Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Dr Goh Keng Swee proclaimed to the effect that “it was a scandal that Singapore had no professional symphony orchestra of its own.” Our young nation was then in the heady throes of economic development and prosperity making, with the tag “cultural desert” often surfacing as a haunt and taunt. Orchestras that performed Western classical music did exist in Singapore, but these were the domain of enthusiastic musical amateurs, students and ambitious teachers. Nothing here resembled the Berlin Philharmonic or London Symphony.

Pioneering years

January 1979 became a landmark in our cultural history. That was when the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, the nation’s first professional orchestra, made its big splash amid much buzz with three concerts at the NTUC Conference Hall. Behind the scenes, it took almost two years to assemble the 41 musicians, led by the Sumatra-born, locally-bred and London-trained conductor Choo Hoey, who graced the stage and performed Majulah Singapura. Professor Bernard Tan, full-time physicist, university don and part-time composer, was the architect of this coup. He fondly recalled, “How did the SSO find the musicians? When the Eastman Wind Ensemble happened to tour Singapore, we approached and auditioned the players en bloc!”

From the outset, it was Music Director Choo Hoey who decided that the orchestra present only the great classics, with pleas to “dumb down” and play popular songs and tunes from musicals immediately shot down. The staples of Beethoven and Schubert, which appeared in the first concert, soon grew to encompass Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov as the fledgling orchestra voraciously learnt new repertoire. Peculiar to SSO programmes of the early years was the inclusion of Chinese orchestral works, which immediately won the hearts and minds of an older generation of listeners.

World-renowned soloists began to appear, albeit sporadically, in concerto performances with the orchestra. Names like Fou Ts’ong, Ivan Moravec and Ruggiero Ricci come to mind, as well as “future greats” Cho-Liang Lin and Nigel Kennedy soon after their graduation. The orchestra was also a nurturing ground for young Singaporean talents with Seow Yit Kin, Lee Pan Hon, Margaret Leng Tan and Toh Chee Hung all making solo appearances, and conductor Lim Yau who grew the Singapore Symphony Chorus. More importantly, the orchestra became more Singaporean in strength and constitution. The original eight local musicians were joined by returning overseas scholars under the SSO Scholarship Scheme, while emigres from Eastern Europe and China sunk their roots and made Singapore home. Almost 70 percent of SSO musicians today are Singaporean, with Assistant Leader Lynnette Seah the only remaining member from the heady class of ’79.

Making it internationally

The SSO soon made itself felt in the international arena, by first touring the nations of Southeast Asia, with concerts in Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Manila, and later spreading its wings further afield to Scandinavia in 1985 and UK in 1991. Favourable reviews helped the orchestra gain in confidence, reaching a high in 1994 when following a historic concert at the famed Salle Pleyel in Paris, a French critic hailed the SSO as “one of the top 20 orchestras in the world”. Hyperbole aside, the SSO was by then capable of tackling the blockbusters of the repertory, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Mahler’s Symphony No.9 and Messiaen’s Turangalila, for example. A further boost came with the naming of veteran Finnish conductor Okko Kamu as SSO’s Principal Guest Conductor.

Like any organisation, renewal with fresh blood was essential and inevitable. After an eventful 18 years, Choo Hoey stepped down as Music Director and made way for the fast rising China-born conducting whiz Lan Shui (above). “Lan”, as he is popularly known, brought with him a new dynamism, energy and spontaneity in everything he touched. Like a fresh coat of varnish, music was heard anew, and not without raised eyebrows and previous perceptions strongly challenged.

The SSO also began to make recordings on a regular basis, with the Swedish audiophile label BIS which never deletes its back catalogue. Its recordings of works by Alexander Tcherepnin and contemporary Chinese composers Bright Sheng, Zhou Long and Chen Yi won numerous accolades in prestigious international journals including Gramophone, BBC Music Magazine, Fanfare and American Record Guide. Further cementing this acclaim were further successful concert tours to Germany and Switzerland (2000), China (2001, 2007 and 2009) and USA (2005, left), and in a fund-raising concert with tenor Jose Carreras at Angkor Wat in 2002.

Becoming a household name

All these plaudits would mean nothing if the SSO had little or no impact on Singaporeans themselves. To this end, the orchestra has reached out to the general public with its numerous outreach concerts at outdoor venues, shopping centres and the heartlands, playing light classics and popular melodies. Concerts at the Botanic Gardens have consistently drawn thousands of listeners, with the hope that some of them will become the concertgoers of tomorrow. In the concert hall, children’s concerts and the iconic Babies Proms are the first events to be over-subscribed.

Perhaps the most momentous event for SSO in recent years would be the move from Victoria Concert Hall, its home since 1980, to the Esplanade Theatres on the Bay from late 2002. Despite all claims to the contrary, the SSO – and the mere notion of musical professionalism in Singapore – came to roost with this. The cramped confines of the Edwardian Vic gave way to the broad spaces of Singapore’s spanking new space-aged arts centre where the sky’s the limit. “Now the world can hear what the Singapore Symphony Orchestra - and Singapore - is truly capable of,” proclaimed Lan Shui proudly. The culmination of that boast were two unforgettable performances of Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand at the 2004 Singapore Arts Festival, where the massively augmented orchestra performed under Shui’s baton with eight international soloists and a large chorus of singers from Singapore, China and Latvia. Fire regulations notwithstanding, there were almost 400 musicians on stage in that ultimate of concert performances.

Have we arrived?

So has the SSO finally arrived? National pride would indicate a resounding “Yes”, especially when the orchestra incurs a seven-figure annual deficit that is generously bailed out by the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts. Its detractors have bemoaned the orchestra’s recycling of the tired classics, a lack of cutting edge (read 20th and 21st century music) and consistency of performances.

Perhaps this question is best answered by our visitors. The renowned Chinese cellist Wang Jian, whose prowess is often compared with Yo-Yo Ma’s, was overheard making this remark: “As I closed my eyes and enjoyed the music, I then thought to myself, “Was I hearing the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra?” It was really that good!” With that, it may be said that Dr Goh Keng Swee’s dream had finally come true.

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