In Berlin for a short examining stint, I stumble across a magical little restaurant in the lee of the Deutsche Oper and settle down in a corner for a fine glass of wine and an even finer jaegerschnitzel. As ever when dining alone, my ears reach out to my fellow diners and I give in to my passion for eavesdropping. Here, I have the excuse of trying to shake the dust off my very rusty German in advance of a day’s examining where some linguistic facility will inevitably be called for, and before long I feel fully tuned into a discussion going on in earnest at a nearby table between six very distinguished looking diners. I am intrigued to hear them discussing the merits of Wolfgang Sawallisch and it is some time before I realise that my comprehension of their discussion is heightened by the fact that much of it is being conducted in English. I look over a little more closely and, as I do, one of them catches my eye. There is a shock of recognition and we politely nod, but I quickly turn back trying to rack my brains as to where I’ve seen him before. He, however, has no such English reserve and gets up from his table and comes over to speak to me.
After some preliminary skirmishes in German which quickly resolve into English, we realise that we met when he was on a panel discussion I chaired at a Live! Singapore forum a few years back. At that time he was manager of a German orchestra but I learn he has now retired and is a leading light in a small society of retired professionals who share a passion for the arts and for the English language. They meet every Monday and as this is a Sunday evening, he is thrilled that, by good fortune, I will be able to join their meeting the following day. I have no choice but to agree and I am then asked if I can deliver a short talk in English on the Classical Music Scene in Asia.Leap forward 24 hours and I meet my contact again at the restaurant and, fortified with a refreshing beer, we head off to the apartment where about twenty distinguished ladies and gentlemen are assembled in a room which could almost have come out of a movie film set; full of dark wood panels and creaking leather chairs. I’ve had a busy day examining so my preparation for this talk has been non-existent. I resort to that tried and tested opener of asking my audience what they know of Classical Music in Asia.
Quite a lot, it turns out, and quickly my talk becomes an animated discussion about Chinese concert halls, audience behaviour and Lang Lang; it turns out most of them followed both the Berlin Phil and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra on recent Asian tours. Interestingly, though, none of them had heard of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (which distressed me deeply, not least because it does have a German conductor – although I quickly learn that Claus Peter Flor is not a name that engenders universal admiration among the great and good of Berlin society) nor of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, and while they were conscious of orchestras in Japan, Taiwan and China, the only Asian orchestra they really felt they knew enough to pass comment on was the Singapore Symphony.This was a group of people who listen avidly to music, not on disc or radio, but live. For them, music only exists as a live performance art – and, as if to prove the point- our Monday evening meeting ended with three of them performing a Beethoven Trio. They vividly recalled the visit of the SSO to Berlin in 2010 and were even more impressed when the Singapore National Youth Orchestra visited the city last year as part of the Young Euro Classic Festival – a performance I was supposed to attend but was sadly prevented by family illness. For serious music lovers living in a city with possibly the finest orchestra in the world on their doorstep, to recall performances by two relatively lowly orchestras from Asia shows either good manners or a genuine level of admiration at the standard of playing they heard.
I am convinced that the Singaporean musicians really did make an impact; not the “how-clever-the-Asians-are-to-do-this-sort-of-thing” impact but a genuine belief that these orchestras both contributed something significant to the musical life of the city. It reinforces something which every orchestral manager knows, but can rarely convince his financial backers to appreciate; and that is an orchestra on tour not only offers musical performances to audiences overseas, but performs an ambassadorial function on behalf of its country far beyond the purely commercial benefits accrued from any number of trade delegations or tourist promotional expos.We may know that there are plenty of fine orchestras in Asia; but for the rest of the world to know that, Asian orchestras have to get out and about; building audiences at home is important, but there is huge value far beyond the confines of music, in international touring.