Singapore in Scotland. It has a nicely alliterative ring to it, although it's a shame it's not taking place in September as that would add another S to the mix and make it sound deliberate rather than coincidental. The fact is that during August Singapore is making a very significant impression on the Scottish cultural scene, and it strikes me as rather sad that nobody seems to have picked up on it.
While the world generally regards it as a mildly dictatorial nanny state where commerce and finance take precedence over artistic endeavours and where the pursuit of the new and glitzy override any appreciation of cultural depth, one would have thought that the Singapore government would have gone all out to use the coincidence of three Singaporean musical groups making waves in Scotland as a marketing ploy and as a means of promoting Singapore as a place where quality of life means far more than merely a lavish lifestyle. But, as with every other democratic government, the Singapore one is so arranged as to have stand alone ministries completely oblivious to what each is doing. Joined up government just does not exist; the result being that while ministries happily pass the buck when there is blame to be apportioned, they also miss the opportunity to grab a bit of free publicity and international respect largely, I assume, because they think some other ministry is handling it. Not, of course, that it is really the job of government to get involved in these matters; but what a shame nobody has picked up on what is, without a doubt, one of the great moments in Singapore's place on the global arts' stage.
Just as the world lives in ignorance of Singapore's true qualities, so it lives in ignorance of Scotland's place as a cultural hub. Mention tartan trews and haggis, neeps and tatties and one immediately thinks of Scotland; but the country has long been one of the more distinguished habitats for high art. A favourite book of mine (Gerald Norris's A Musical Gazetteer of Great Britain & Ireland) mentions a veritable flock of musicians who have made the pilgrimage to Scotland. There was Mendelssohn, Chopin, Sousa, Liszt, Busoni, Paganini, Grieg, Dvořák, Ives, Rachmaninov, Ravel, Shostakovich, Boulez, Bernstein, Dohnányi, Bloch, Poulenc, Henze, Berio, Lutosławski, Penderecki, Krenek, Johann Strauss I, Johann Strauss II, Richard Strauss, Stravinsky – need I go on? It has professional orchestras by the bucket load – including the Royal Scottish National, BBC Scottish Symphony, Scottish Chamber – ballet companies – Scottish Ballet – as well as a magnificent opera company, great centres of musical learning – notably the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama – has bred some of today's leading composers – James Dillon, Oliver Knussen, James McMillan, Thea Musgrave, Judith Weir - and performers – Evelyn Glennie, Donald Runnicles, Malcolm Martineau, Linda Esther Gray, Henry Herford, Neil Mackie – and of course is home to one of the world's greatest arts' festivals, the Edinburgh International Festival, which starts on the 12th of this month and at which two concerts are to be given by Singaporean performers.
I spent yesterday morning sitting in on the T'ang Quartet's rehearsal for their Edinburgh performance, and I have to say Edinburgh is in for a treat with an imaginative programme of Schubert, Barber, Aulis Sallinen and Bright Sheng. Not that the T'angs don't have their work cut out. What satisfies a Singaporean audience is way below the level at which the well-informed, critical and discriminatory Edinburgh audience expects to experience their music making, and with the Barber Quartet in their programme, they are not shying away from the challenge. For the Edinburgh folk this is no novelty but a staple of the repertoire which they have heard from the best quartets anywhere. What makes the T'angs' task all the more challenging is that they are appearing in Edinburgh as a traditional string quartet and not hiding behind the façade of the "experimental, pushing the boundaries, multi-media" presentation which has come to be something of their hallmark and which marked their previous visit to Edinburgh. They are playing (on 17th August) to an audience who have heard the greatest string quartets the world has ever known. I wish them well.
Two days earlier another great Singaporean musical ambassador will be performing at the Edinburgh International Festival. Melvin Tan will be giving an astonishing piano recital on the 15th playing music by Domenico Scarlatti and John Cage. What kind of message is that sending out to the world about the musical environment in Singapore; can we read into it that Singapore believes in the easy coexistence of the traditional and the startlingly experimental? Surely someone in the Ministry of Tourism/Culture/Education/Foreign Affairs or whatever could have milked that metaphor for all it's worth.
And it doesn't stop there. In the early hours of this morning I received an enthusiastic call from my sister who lives in the northern Scottish city of Aberdeen. As a former teacher and someone who works a lot with young people in the city, she has been much involved in the Aberdeen International Youth Festival which runs this year from 27th July to 6th August. She couldn't wait to tell me just how thrilled she – and the rest of the audience - had been with a concert given there by the Singapore National Youth Orchestra under Daryl Ang with Lim Yan as the pianist in Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto. Along with Tchaik 4 and Russlan and Lyudmila that's a pretty tall order for any orchestra to perform, let alone a youth one, and while they got a lot of praise when they presented it in Singapore last week, I can't help feeling that to have won over the Aberdonians who, like the good folk of Edinburgh, have centuries of great musical visitors to their city to use as a yardstick, is a brilliant achievement.
For many people Vienna and Salzburg are known primarily for the great musicians they produced. Not only with the T'ang Quartet, Melvin Tan and the SNYO at two great Scottish festivals, but with the Orchestra of the Music Makers and the Singapore Symphony with their sights set on major events like the Cheltenham Festival and the Proms, it is not entirely fanciful to suggest that Singapore might one day be in a similar position; the ambassadorial role classical musicians perform on the word stage should never be under-estimated. Sadly, unless and until government departments learn this and act in concert not only to capitalise on it but actively to promote it, one of Singapore's greatest international exports may well be lost.