09 February 2011

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra at 30

To mark the SSO's 30th anniversary concert in 2009, I was asked to write a short history of the orchestra.  In preparing a short piece for Gramophone (to be published in the May issue), I dusted this history off for some reference, and decided it was probably worth bringing out into the open again, not least for those who (like myself) somehow mislaid the programme booklet into which it was originally inserted. 

Newspapers around the world led with a variety of stories on 25th January 1979; there was, after all, quite a lot happening at the time.  The world was reeling with the news that a popular revolution in Iran had forced the Shah to flee to Egypt while the Ayatollah Khomeini was preparing to leave his exile in Paris and head back to Tehran to establish a truly Islamic Republic in the country.  Also grabbing the headlines were events in Cambodia where the dreaded Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge had been forced out of office by Vietnamese troops and were even then hiding in the jungles.  Meanwhile Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping was about to set off to Washington to meet with the US president Jimmy Carter for talks which ended with the establishment of diplomatic links between the two countries.  All these major world events somewhat overshadowed an event which took place in Singapore the night before but which, in its own way, turned out to be every bit as enduring as the Iranian Revolution, the toppling of a vicious Cambodian regime or a diplomatic treaty between two super-powers, and a whole lot more positive and enriching for the people of Singapore than any of those.  For it was on the evening of 24th January 1979 that Choo Hoey introduced to the world a new professional orchestra as, in the Singapore Conference Hall, he and 41 musicians drawn from around the world, presented a programme of Rossini, Beethoven, Schubert, Charles Ives and a traditional Chinese piece (Dance of the Yao Tribe) as the inaugural concert of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

30 years on the SSO has grown not just numerically – it has more than doubled its original playing strength and now boasts 96 permanent members – but also in international esteem.  Since its first international tours in 1980-2 – to Malaysia, The Philippines and Thailand  – it has performed in and undertaken extended concert tours to Scandinavia (Sweden, Norway and Denmark in 1985), Europe (Spain, Italy, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1988, UK, Turkey and Greece in 1991, France, Belgium and Romania in 1994, Germany and Switzerland in 2000 and France and Spain in 2005), Taiwan and Korea (1991), Egypt (1994), Hong Kong (1998), China (2001 and 2007), Cambodia (2002), Japan (2003) and the USA (2005).  On top of that its place among the world’s top orchestras has been reinforced by an impressive discography with highly-acclaimed discs released internationally on the Swedish BIS label.  Typical of critical reception is this from the American Record Guide; “Today it unquestionably ranks among the world’s best…A world Class Orchestra”.

Such success is the result not only of the dedication of the present-day team of  musicians and staff of the SSO but also of the vision and faith of those who first had the dream of creating a professional orchestra in Singapore.  Chief amongst these was Dr Goh Keng Swee who, as Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister, publicly stated in 1973 that it was “a scandal” that Singapore did not have a symphony orchestra of its own.  He later commented that both he and his PAP colleagues “believe that there’s more to life than making money and that the orchestra would be worthwhile as it would raise the standard of culture of Singaporeans”. His comments prompted several abortive attempts to get an orchestra off the ground, but it was not until October 1977 that Dr Goh, in collaboration with Tan Boon Teik, the then Attorney-General, and Dr Bernard Tan, Patron and Chairman of the Singapore Youth Orchestra, discussed the idea at length, that the first real steps in the creation of the SSO got underway.  Their first decision was to find a suitable person who would agree to create and conduct the orchestra.  Their inspired choice was Choo Hoey.

Born in Indonesia in 1934, Choo Hoey was educated in Singapore going on to study music professionally both in London and Brussels.  In 1979 he was in his 10th season as Principal Conductor of the Greek National Opera but was lured back to Singapore by the offer of creating the country’s first professional orchestra.  From the outset he took an eminently realistic approach to the task in hand, maintaining that it would take at least 15 years to create an orchestra of international standing and to do so would entail the hiring of musicians from abroad.  (This approach prompted a memorable comment from Dr Goh that Choo Hoey was “surprisingly down-to-earth for a musician”.)  The task before Choo was neatly summed up by Gretchen Liu writing on the occasion of the SSO’s 15th anniversary; “To create a new orchestra in Asia, in a country far removed from the classical music establishment…with no musical conservatoires to draw upon and no ready-made talent pool.  The sceptics were vocal and even supporters were concerned that the orchestra might turn out to be yet another seven-day wonder”.  But given Choo’s single-minded determination and the powerful support of Dr Goh and Tan Boon Teik, two of the country’s political heavyweights, as well as Bernard Tan, probably Singapore’s most eminent musician, far from being a seven-day wonder, the SSO has been in existence for over 11500 days and looks set for many more to come.

Having created the SSO and seen it establish itself at the heart of Singapore’s cultural life, Choo Hoey stepped down from the post of Music Director in 1996, although he continues his relationship with the Orchestra through his position as Conductor Emeritus.  The following year the SSO appointed its second Musical Director, Lan Shui.   A native of Hangzhou, China, Lan Shui studied conducting both in China and the USA, where he worked alongside many of the country’s most eminent conductors – Leonard Bernstein at the Tanglewood Festival, David Zinman at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Neeme Järvi at the Detroit Symphony, Kurt Masur at the New York Philharmonic – and since taking up his appointment with the SSO has attracted many eminent soloists to perform alongside the orchestra.  He has also directed the SSO in performances of some of classical music’s most revered masterpieces, performances which must have seemed an impossible dream to those 41 orchestral musicians assembled on stage back in January 1979.  Perhaps the most impressive of these was the Asian première of Mahler’s vast “Symphony of a Thousand” in 2004, but other notable performances in recent seasons have included the first-ever performance in Cantonese of Mahler’s classic Das Lied von der Erde. 

From the very outset the SSO has shown a commitment to Asian music alongside its core repertoire of western masterpieces, but under Lan Shui the focus on Asian music has strengthened with the commissioning of several new works by living composers. Such faith and commitment to the future of music in the region, coupled with the SSO’s continued striving for greater musical excellence, augurs well for the next 30 years of professional orchestral music-making in Singapore.

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