Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Take a bow, Singapore

Jun 7, 2011
How does a tiny country with no great tradition of Western classical music churn out a raft of high-level string players? ROBERT MARKOW of The Strad finds out.

IN 1973, Singapore's then Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister, Dr Goh Keng Swee, declared it a 'scandal' that the country had no professional orchestra.

Just six years later, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) gave its first concert. 'There can't have been many national symphony orchestras born in a defence ministry,' says Mr Bernard Tan, an SSO board member. When support for classical music comes from the highest levels of government, is it any wonder that Singapore, an island city-state of nearly five million people, has become a nursery for top musical talent? When I visited in January, I heard three concerts on successive nights that compellingly underscored this observation, with a superior level of string playing commanding the greatest attention.

On the first night, Singaporean violinist Siow Lee-Chin appeared as soloist with the visiting Oberlin Orchestra from the United States on its Asian tour. Her ravishing performance of Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending and viscerally thrilling rendition of Ravel's Tzigane revealed a charismatic artist who infuses meaning into every note and whose playing is full of elegance and finesse. Her story is in many ways a dream come true.

In 2000, as a talented young soloist, she was invited to play for the late former president of Singapore, Mr Ong Teng Cheong, at the Istana, the presidential palace. While chatting over tea afterwards, she mentioned that if she were to ever realise her ambition of pursuing an inter-national career, she would need a better instrument.

'The president was astounded to learn what a really good instrument costs,' she recalls. 'He was totally sympathetic to my case, and the next day I got the incredible news that he had found two donors to help me and that I could go shopping.'

Siow eventually found the instrument she wanted, a Guadagnini, in New York. Now valued at a cool US$500,000 (S$615,000), it was bought for her through Singapore's National Arts Council and remains state property.

The following night I heard the SSO, led by guest conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky, give an impressive performance of Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony. The power, glow and depth of sound emanating from that orchestra's string section brought back memories of what used to thrill me about the strings of the Philadelphia Orchestra in the Eugene Ormandy years and, for its incredible level of discipline, the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell.

And on the third evening I heard an equally committed performance by another of Singapore's many orchestras (10 at last count), the Orchestra of the Music Makers (the name derives from a poem by Arthur O'Shaughnessy).

Its musicians have an average age of around 20, they meet intermittently, and for most of them music is a hobby. But it was the kind of concert where you cheer and clap your hands raw.

Strong government support

IN ALL three concerts, it was string players who left the most vivid and indelible impression - full, rich, with hardly a ragged edge or sloppy entrance. What, then, accounts for this exceptionally high level of string playing in Singapore, a country with no extensive history of classical music? The short answer is a government committed to education and the arts, strong string programmes in schools, a deep vein of competitiveness among its people, a new generation of top-quality teachers, and robust parental support.

In the minds of many Westerners who have not been there, Singapore means a repressive, quasi-police state where you can be fined just for chewing gum. (Actually, it is not illegal to chew gum, only to import or sell it.) Some still remember the much-publicised case of American teenager Michael Fay who was sentenced to caning for vandalism. Despite pleas from the highest levels of American government, Singaporean law prevailed.

The Western perception of law in Singapore underscores an undeniable point: When the Government there decides to do something, it gets done. 'If Singapore has one thing to teach America,' wrote Mr Thomas Friedman recently in the New York Times, 'it is about taking governing seriously... Politics here is not treated as sports or entertainment.'

In the early 1980s, Singapore began rapidly transforming itself into a skills- and knowledge-intensive economy. The Ministry of Education (MOE) designed a curriculum that ensures nearly all Singaporeans leave school with the skills to find a job. That includes those looking to a future in music.

The curriculum incorporates not only core subjects like mathematics and science, but also 'co-curricular activities' (mostly sports, clubs and the performing arts), which are offered at the elementary school level and are required at the secondary level. Here is where many children get their first taste of music.

'It's much easier to teach them when they're young,' says cellist Leslie Tan of Singapore's T'ang Quartet. 'They're like sponges. They're hungry for knowledge. Their eyes pop. They'll try anything.'

In 1982, MOE also instituted a Music Elective Programme (MEP) in select schools to provide an in-depth, extended programme of musical development for academically qualified, talented students. A similar programme exists for art.

To date, more than 5,000 students have graduated from these two programmes. The 10 MEP schools include some of Singapore's finest, including the prestigious Raffles Institution, Raffles Girls' School, Anglo-Chinese School, Dunman High School and Methodist Girls' School. From this richly nurturing environment have come many, probably most, of Singapore's top string players, with the pool growing every year.

Violin as popular start

WHY strings? Because the violin is the instrument many children in Singapore begin with (they often learn the piano too), some starting as young as four. By the time they come to choose a co-curricular activity in school, they have already established their priorities in this direction. To fill out the viola, cello and double bass sections in the string ensembles at the MEP schools, some violinists are persuaded to switch, lured by free tuition and the loan of an instrument.

Competition to play in these school orchestras is keen. Every two years they are judged by an international jury, which hands out coveted awards. Foreign tours sometimes follow. Teamwork, peer pressure, bonding and hard work drive these teenagers to the point where the spirit of music-making sometimes gets lost in the pursuit of winning.

The best string players at secondary-school level compete for membership in the Singapore National Youth Orchestra (SNYO).

This ensemble is funded and managed by MOE, to the extent that the Government subsidises private tutors for most students accepted into the orchestra. These tutors tend to be of high quality - many come from the SSO and Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music - another component fertilising the soil from which the country's string players arise. Most Singaporeans in the SSO at one time played in the SNYO.

A culture of competitiveness is deeply embedded in the Singaporean psyche, a quality readily apparent in the determination parents have for their children to succeed.

Drill, drill, drill is the approach instilled by these parents, be it in maths or music. Parents seek out the best teachers so their children can be out in front in the race to win the top prizes.

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory associate director Chan Tze Law notes: 'There has been a huge improvement in the quality of teaching since I was at school. My contemporaries and I had to travel abroad to become professionals. We returned to share what we learnt, so now the younger generation can leapfrog over what my generation went through, saving tremendous amounts of time.'

Outstanding role models

THE trailblazing role model for string players, and for violinists especially, is Siow Lee-Chin, the first Singaporean to win multiple gold medals internationally (including at the 1994 Szeryng Competition), the first Singaporean to study at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and the first Singaporean violinist to combine a solo career with a tenured faculty position abroad.

More recently, another violinist who has helped put Singapore on the map is Kam Ning, second-prize winner at the 2001 Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition of Belgium. Other young violinists to watch include Gabriel Ng, now studying at the Yehudi Menuhin School in England; Ike See, currently at Curtis; Edward Tan at Yale University; and Loh Jun Hong from Yong Siew Toh Conservatory. All have concertmaster or solo experience under their belts.

Any overview of the excellence of string playing in Singapore must take into account the contribution of Yong Siew Toh Conservatory. Opened only eight years ago, it quickly became the benchmark for music schools in Asia. The language of instruction is English, which means graduates can pursue careers almost anywhere in the world. Already, students have scooped up a dozen international prizes and awards. Others have secured positions in important orchestras or participated in leading festivals.

Among the newest members of the SSO, six are Yong Siew Toh graduates, five of them string players. The school is now turning out so many high-level violinists that the SSO does not advertise abroad unless suitable candidates cannot be found locally.

The conservatoire is named in honour of a music teacher in whose name it received an initial gift of $25 million. MOE matched the gift, a further mark of the Government's investment in arts education. In 2008 the conservatoire received a second gift of $25 million from the same family, which was again matched by the ministry.

Further strong government support of music education came this year with the funding of a new music degree programme at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, developed in collaboration with Britain's Royal College of Music (RCM). The 20 or so students beginning the programme in August will follow the London conservatoire's curriculum and spend seven weeks at the RCM during the final year of the course.

Singapore has no natural resources. Instead, it invests in its people. 'Education is the currency of Singapore,' noted Yong Siew Toh Conservatory's founding director, the late Dr Steven Baxter.

Singapore's former ambassador to Japan, Mr Lim Chin Beng, accurately places the country in the context of First World nations when he observes: 'You cannot consider Singapore to be fully developed as a world-class city unless its children want to become musicians, painters, actors and dancers, and unless their parents want this for them.'

As Singapore approaches the half-century mark as an independent nation in 2015, it is safe to say the country has already and admirably reached this goal.

This feature was printed in this month's issue of The Strad magazine, voice of the string music world since 1890. To find out more and to subscribe, visit www.thestrad.com.

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