01 September 2016

A New Singapore Orchestra


Over the past four or five years I could have used this same title for a blog post almost as many times.  It seems that almost every year a new orchestra emerges on to the Singapore music scene.  According to one colleague in the know, there are currently no less than 21 orchestras floating around Singapore.

Why this growth of orchestras?  Is it audience-driven?  Do audiences crave more orchestral concerts than are currently available to them here?  Or is it musician-driven?  Is there such a burning desire to belong to an orchestra that, when existing ones are full to capacity, new ones have to be created?

The answer was possibly provided by Mervin Beng at the inaugural concert of Singapore’s latest new orchestra (re:Sound) at the Victoria Concert Hall last night.  Speaking from the stage after the interval, he proudly pointed to the fact that a majority of the musicians in re:Sound were Singaporean by birth and, moreover, a great many were graduates of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory.  That might lead the cynical observer to suggest that the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory produces orchestral players merely to create more and more orchestras in Singapore, and that the prime function of orchestras in Singapore is as a statement of national pride rather than an indicator of musical health.

Yes, it is good to know that in the few short years since the creation of Singapore’s first professional orchestra (1979) musical training in the country has so dramatically improved that it can now people a dozen or more orchestras.  That is a certainly cause for national pride.

But an orchestra cannot exist merely to provide employment for local musicians or to wave the flag of nationalistic self-congratulation.  For orchestras to survive, thrive and grow, there has to be the cross-fertilisation which comes from international input.  Singaporean musicians are infinitely devalued if they remain immune from the influence of foreign talent – either through rubbing shoulders with them in the orchestra or by going overseas themselves to gain invaluable orchestral and musical experience. 

If evidence of the importance of national and cultural cross-fertilisation were needed, we should only look to the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra.

Founded amidst great fanfare in 1998, the Malaysian Philharmonic had 106 playing members of whom just two could be defined, albeit by some stretching of the definition, as Malaysian.  The rest were out-and-out foreigners.  This was deliberate.  The Prime Minister of the day boasted how it showed that Malaysia could attract the very best, while the President of the company which paid for the orchestra promised that no Malaysian would ever play in the orchestra unless they earned their place through fair competition with players from elsewhere in the world.  It was called the Malaysian orchestra, we were told, because it belonged to Malaysia, not because it was peopled by Malaysians.

Things went wrong when management succumbed to popular pressure and started to bring in Malaysian players because they were Malaysians rather than because they were good.  Morale hit rock bottom and standards dropped.  What had once been unquestionably the finest orchestra in Asia, was reduced to just another local band.  Luckily, a hard core of foreign players remained and, while it teetered on the brink for a time, it has held on and, although I have not heard it since 2012, reports I get are that, while it is but a shadow of its former self, it is still a highly competent orchestra, the foreigners having held fast to their standards and the Malaysians having conscientiously worked themselves up to match their level of playing.

So, to create an orchestra in Singapore merely for Singaporean players, laudable as that might seem, is almost doomed to failure.  Other orchestras here have grown up, performed once, and then sunk back into obscurity.  Will it be the case with re:Sound?

I suspect not.  Largely, I have to say, because unlike earlier attempts to get an orchestra off the ground here, this one is driven by an absolutely determined body of people, headed by Mervin Beng, who know what they want and are absolutely focused on achieving it.  On top of that, Beng is a hard-headed realist who knows the pitfalls and problems of running an orchestra, and has set the necessary mechanisms in place to ensure that ideals do not obscure the cold hard light of reality.  On top of that, he seems to have been able to attract strong and committed sponsors and certainly knows how to play the field to ensure his orchestra has all it needs to develop and thrive.  And he has certainly done well in his choice of conductor (Jason Lai) and musicians.

Beng’s trump card, however, is his identification of a particular niche in the Singapore musical scene which has not been filled adequately by others.  He recognised that the core works of the classical orchestral repertory – the music of Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, and so on – were either overlooked or treated peripherally by the existing players in the field.  The Singapore Symphony is too big and too firmly rooted in the grand orchestral repertory of the late 19th century to put this music at the heart of its concert programmes or even offer anything but occasional glib and superficial readings of it in its mainstream programming.  Other local orchestras never showed sufficient grasp of the stylistic implications of this music to give worthwhile performances.  In short, Singapore orchestras have worked on the principle that everybody knew this music, so it did not require special care or attention.

By creating a professional chamber orchestra, Beng’s thinking was to draw together highly capable players who could, by focusing exclusively on this repertory, get right to the heart of it and make the effective interpretation of it the very core of their existence.  Of course, to achieve the level of collective involvement in the interpretation of this music that it demands in a world where the performance of the classical repertory is widely regarded as an extremely specialist endeavour, the orchestra needs to play it in public a great many times before it can begin to make its own mark on it and convince the Singaporean audience that there is value in treating these familiar works as significant musical journeys rather than popular musical stocking-fillers.  They got off to a good start last night, but there are a couple of significant hurdles, which seem endemic in Singaporean musicians, which need to be overcome.

The vast majority of Singaporean orchestral players emerging from Yong Siew Toh (and other local institutions) have had precious little exposure to high quality, live performances of this repertory.  There is a hugely active concert calendar at the Conservatory, but it is wide-ranging, and genuinely accomplished performances of this repertory by those who have made its interpretation their life’s work are inevitably few and far between.  Few of the Singaporeans, too, have had prolonged and wide exposure to these sorts of performances on their travels overseas.  In the main, they have got to hear of this specialist approach to the classics through recordings; and a recording - even a fabulous one by a world-class ensemble - is a very, very different animal from a living, breathing, live performance. 

On top of their general lack of awareness of the orthodoxies of modern-day realisation of the classical repertory, Singaporean musicians have another issue to overcome; and this is a more personal and, consequently, more complex one.

Because they have had to make so many sacrifices, have had to go against the advice and wishes of their peers and, often, their parents, young Singaporeans regard music as a deadly serious business.  They have drilled themselves to a state of technical mastery which is the result of years spent in the narrow confines of the teaching studio and practice room; read their biographies and see how much more they value the teachers they have had and the competitions they have entered than the exposure they have had to music in the non-educational, non-competitive environment.

The one thing which has marked out the vast majority of performances I have heard from Singaporean students and young Singaporean professionals is an inability to communicate in their performance anything other than a knowledge of the technical challenges the piece presents to them and an awareness of the purely academic structure they have identified through visual analysis of the composer’s technique.

Yet music is a communicative art which uses sound (the player’s technique) and structure (the composer’s technique) to convey a message.  Identifying that message and then attempting to project it to the audience is what interpretation is all about; and what is so signally lacking in so much of the musical activity of young Singaporean players.

To grasp that message, the performer has to forget the technical and academic details of the physical score and get to grips with the complex notion of combining an understanding of the society in which the music was born, the life of the composer who conceived it, the political, religious, social aspirations that went into the creation of the work, and a profound grasp of the full gamut of human emotions.  You can read about this in books, or be taught it by lecturers, but you never understand it until you go to the place where the music was written or rub shoulders with those who have some personal connection with it. 

Singaporean musicians are extremely lucky that the likes of Mervin Beng are around to provide them with the opportunity to develop and perfect their skills.  But they themselves have to create their own environment in which they can fully develop their art.
 
{my review of re:Sound - The Journey Begins appears in tomorrow's Straits Times and will be reprinted here over the weekend.]

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