My Straits Times colleague, Chang Tou Liang, reviewed a concert over the weekend in which, as he wrote, a large proportion of the audience walked out in the interval, prompting the conductor to voice his concern from the podium that so few people had remained behind to listen to the symphony in the second half of the concert.
Sometimes people (myself included) walk out of concerts because they are bad or because the music is just intolerable to their ears. Good on them! Audiences should be more pro-active in engaging with the music, positively or negatively. However nothing in Dr Chang’s review seemed to imply that there was any musical or intellectual reason for this mass exodus. He simply put it down to the fact that the symphony (by César Franck) was not the kind of thing the audience was there to hear. This prompted a little flurry of correspondence (to which I was an admittedly passive party) suggesting that if audiences did not wish to attend concerts there was little point in newspapers reviewing them.
In the normal course of events I would heartily endorse this view. It is eminently sensible that a newspaper reviews and reports what is of interest to the wider public and ignores what is not. My sporting passion, such as it is, is for croquet, a game I love and in which I show some meagre aptitude. But I am in a tiny minority and, much as it is of interest to me and few other members of the specialist elite who follow it, I fully appreciate why I can’t read full page reports of the latest matches in my national paper; croquet attracts so few to its matches that one can hardly envisage any but the most avid enthusiast wishing to read a review of the game a few days later in a daily newspaper. Soccer, on the other hand (much as I despise it) seems to be very widely enjoyed by a huge cross-section of the public, so it is the duty of the national newspaper to report it. Games of soccer are clearly something which interests the general public.
Why should we adopt different principles in music? If a concert is of such minority and specialist appeal that nobody goes, there can be no justification in reporting it, while if the crowds pour in, then there is a duty to report it.
But in Singapore it’s not as simple as that.
I am an avid concert goer, well up on the Singapore music scene, and I adore César Franck’s Symphony. Yet, until I read Dr Chang’s retrospective review, I had no idea the concert had even taken place. Last week, attending the Esplanade for one concert, I noticed another which I would have much preferred to attend had I known it was on. Yet I did not. I have a drawer full of schedules from various orchestras, chamber ensembles, individuals, educational establishments, concert venues, ticketing agencies and so on, through which I regularly delve to see what is coming up. I occasionally attempt an online trawl, putting “classical music concerts in Singapore” into my search engine. Yet so much slips through the net. I know where to look; how can a general audience, and especially visitors from overseas, know in advance what is going on on any single day in the arts scene of Singapore?
Singapore is so primitive and amateurish in its management of publicity that it defies belief. There is no one-stop arts events calendar (certainly not one which clearly identifies all classical music events), there is no routine blanket calendar of arts events in a national newspaper (compare that with what Hong Kong has in the South China Morning Post), there is no leaflet detailing what’s on in the next few weeks. Instead there is a plethora of publicity flyers produced by a vast array of different interested organisations who promote their events and ignore the others.
Go to the Esplanade and try to find out what is on next month. You can tell at a glance about all the free events, but the paid ones – you will never know! If the tickets are sold through an organisation called SISTIC, you can pick up their pathetic little leaflets, usually circulated days too late to be of any value (the September leaflet has yet to hit the leaflet racks), and if the artist is famous or there is some kind of visual interest in the event, a large poster might be put up. But otherwise, you have no way of knowing what’s on, where and, most importantly, at what time (I went to a concert recently which at no point in any of its publicity had mentioned a starting time – even though there were lots of eye-catching images on the poster).
SISTIC does not have the monopoly. There are others, too numerous to mention, who promote their concerts and nothing else. The online search nets those organisations, but no clear and comprehensive list of classical music events in Singapore.
There is so much going on now that someone needs to sit down, collate all the information, and put it up online and in print so that it can reach those who are interested. But it won’t happen, because the kind of entrepreneurial thinkers who might see this as a good idea will also quickly realise that there is more money to be had in promotion than information. Anybody with a charitable notion of helping inform the public will run up against the vested interests of the concert promoters and ticketing companies who put profit above artistic environment, and reject the notion of their events being promoted alongside those of their competitors.
So the sad fact is that audiences for the arts, and classical music in particular, in Singapore will remain in ignorance of the vast amount of what is taking place and, as a result, fail to attend events they would have wished to attend. If nobody knows what is going on, how can audience numbers realistically reflect the public interest?