Friday, 2 September 2011

We Remember PAUL ABISHEGANADEN (1914-2011)

We remember veteran Singaporean conductor PAUL ABISHEGANADEN who passed away peacefully on 31 August 2011 at the age of 97. I was acquainted with Paul long after he had retired from the musical scene, having reviewed his book on musical history in Singapore, Notes Across the Years. I was also fortunate to have interviewed him for the National Library Board's NORA project in 2007. I was always touched by his warmth and kindness. He possessed a good sense of humour as he recounted his days as one of Singapore's pioneering musicians, one touched with much humility. Despite his advanced age and progressive deafness, he and his late wife Theresa (Terri) were always in high spirits whenever I visited them. I am honoured to have sung at the last concert he conducted (excerpts from Handel's Messiah) in 1997, a special event for the World Hospice movement, and privileged to have counted him as a friend.

Here is a biography of Paul Abisheganaden which I wrote for the National Libary Board:


(b. 27 March 1914, Penang - 31 August 2011, Singapore)

Paul Abisheganaden, musician and conductor, was awarded the Cultural Medallion in 1986. Although Paul was born in Penang, the Abisheganaden family relocated to Singapore in 1916 in search of better job opportunities. Paul was taught violin at the tender age of four by his father and pursued further studies in London's Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He is Singapore's first home-grown orchestral and choral conductor, and is affectionately referred to as Singapore's Grand Old Man of Music. He founded the Singapore Chamber Ensemble, which became the most active amateur orchestra and chorus in Singapore for almost 30 years. His book Notes Across The Years is a definitive history of Western classical music in Singapore. His pioneering work in music paralleled an illustrious career in the education and administrative service.

Early Life

Paul Abisheganaden was born the eldest in a family of nine children. On the day of Paul's birth, Penang was shelled by the World War One German cruiser Emden. In his mother's words, Paul was born to the sounds of a 21-gun salute. Young Paul was taught the violin at the age of four by his father, a keen amateur musician who played many musical instruments.

At six, Paul started receiving lessons from Chee Kong Tet, leader of the Chia Keng Tai Orchestra, Singapore's first orchestra formed by local musicians. His lessons cost $5 a month, and this expense was considered a big sacrifice for the family. Paul studied in Serangoon English School (a small branch of Anglo-Chinese School) and later Saint Andrew's School, passing his Senior Cambridge examinations in 1931. He studied arts subjects at Raffles College and graduated with a Diploma in the Arts in 1934. He joined the education service, and taught at the Geylang English School. Here he composed the music and lyric for what was to be the first school anthem, humbly entitled the "Geylang English School Song".

Paul's full-time career was in education. He was Principal of Victoria School from 1959 to 1962, and Teachers' Training College from 1963 to 1968, and Chief Inspector of Schools until his retirement in 1969. For a short stint in the late 1950s, he was put in charge of the Cultural Affairs Unit of the Ministry of Education, which oversaw overseas cultural missions in Singapore. The 1960s and 70s also saw Paul as an indefatigable organiser of large-scaled cultural events and leader of massed voices. In 1963, he helped organise the Ministry of Culture's first Southeast Asian Festival of Arts at the now-demolished National Theatre, which he referred to as the "Mother of All Festivals". In the 1970s, he was instrumental in developing classical music programmes for Singapore's first FM stereo radio station with Radio Television Singapore (RTS, later the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation).

Career in music

Although his full-time work was in education, Paul was making a name for himself as a violinist and singer, performing in recitals and church concerts. His tenor voice stood out in the Saint Andrew's Cathedral Choir, where he and his late brother, Gerard, were the only child choristers. He was taught the basics of conducting by Welshman Glan Williams, Master of Music for the Colony, the first such appointment in any of the crown colonies.

During the Japanese Occupation, Paul taught English, English literature, history and music in a number of schools including Raffles Institution, Anglo-Chinese School and Saint Anthony's Boys School. With permission from the Department of Education, he also played the violin in the Japanese-led Syonan Kokkaido Orchestra. He remembers teaching in the mornings, and after a quick lunch, hurrying to orchestral rehearsals in the afternoon. It was in this orchestra that Paul got his first taste of conducting. He had to conduct movements of Haydn's Surprise Symphony when the orchestra's leader was indisposed. He was paid in cash, and more importantly, in rations like rice, vegetables and cigarettes. The latter fetched a considerable sum of money in the black market, and the earnings kept his family from much hardship.

After the end of the Second World War, Paul played in the short-lived ENSA (Entertainments for National Service Associations) Symphony Orchestra led by the Scottish musician and composer Erik Chisholm. This was the first professional orchestra to assume the name of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. Paul remembers its very high performing standards and the championship of contemporary music, including those of the young Benjamin Britten.

In 1947, Paul became the first Singaporean to receive a British Council scholarship to study in the United Kingdom. He spent two years in London's Guildhall School of Music and Drama, studying singing and conducting. Singapore was in need of trained teachers for the voice and choral conductors, and Paul's training helped fill this void. He studied conducting with Joseph Lewis (well known for his work with BBC orchestras) and observed the work of conductors like Sir Adrian Boult and Edric Cundell. He also had opportunities to conduct the college orchestra in orchestral works and operatic highlights.

Upon returning to Singapore in 1949, he became the acting Master of Music (the position vacated by Glan Williams, who returned to UK) at the Music Department, operating from the Music Studio at Monk's Hill School. Here he coordinated all musical education activities in schools, which emphasised group singing, and also led a teacher's choir.

In 1949, he formed the string orchestra of the Singapore Chamber Ensemble (SCE) and one year later its choir. The SCE gave its first concert in 1950. For almost thirty years, the largely amateur SCE became the leading concert orchestra in Singapore's musical life, prior to the formation of the first fully professional orchestra, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO). Paul also led the Singapore Junior Symphony Orchestra (SJSO), formerly the Singapore Children's Orchestra and the forerunner of the Singapore Youth Orchestra. The SJSO and Combined Schools Choir gave a historic concert at the Palm Court of Raffles Hotel on 12 August 1949. This was the first concert by any Singaporean musical organisation to raise funds for the new University of Malaya, located in Singapore.

In recognition for his services to music and culture in Singapore, he was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1956. In 1958, the Singapore Chamber Ensemble performed and recorded Zubir Said's song "Majulah Singapura", specially composed for the opening of the refurbished Victoria Theatre. This song was later revised and adapted by Paul, in consultation with the composer, and later adopted as Singapore's National Anthem in 1959.

In the first Southeast Asian Festival of Arts in which Paul helped organise in 1963, he conducted a concert by the Singapore Festival Symphony Orchestra. In 1978, he led a 4500-strong choir at the Billy Graham Crusade that performed nightly at the National Stadium.With the formation of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra in 1979, the SCE lost its main core of voluntary musicians who turned professional, and soon ceased regular concert activities. Paul however revived the then-inactive Singapore Youth Orchestra (SYO). It made a grand reappearance in a concert at the Singapore Conference Hall in 1979 before becoming an ensemble under the auspices of the Ministry of Education in 1980.

In 1979, Paul assumed directorship of the Centre for Musical Activities (CMA) at the National University of Singapore (NUS). There he founded and became the first Music Director of the NUS Concert Orchestra, which later became the NUS Symphony Orchestra. Ironically this became Paul's first salaried job as an orchestral conductor, leading him to jest that his newly acquired remuneration had paid for thirty years of conducting for free. He led the orchestra in local concerts and tours to Indonesia, the Philippines and Taiwan. Besides performing in concert halls, the orchestra also played in various unusual venues including on a barge in the Singapore River (celebrating the Clean Rivers campaign in 1987) and the foyer of the Australian High Commission.

For his services to music and culture in Singapore, Paul was awarded in 1986 the Cultural Medallion, Singapore's highest accolade for artistic achievement. In December 1996, the Singapore Chamber Ensemble gave its last concert of choral music in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia. He conducted his last concert in October 1997 at the Harbour Pavilion, conducting highlights from Handel's Messiah in a special concert for the world hospice movement.

In 2005, the National University of Singapore published Paul's book Notes Across the Years: Anecdotes From A Musical Life, a semi-autobiographical volume detailing the history of Western classical music performance and teaching in Singapore from the 1920s to the 1980s. Its attention to factual detail and vivid narration made it an invaluable reference and resource for all students of musical history in Singapore. In his retirement, Paul remains a lively raconteur and source of inspiration for all music-makers and musicians, amateur and professional.

My review of Notes Across the Years may be found here:

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