Singapore has ambitions to be a musical force in the world. With no less than three excellent tertiary institutons with exciting music programmes (including a conservatory which is making a reputation way beyond the boundaries of south east Asia), a specialist School of the Arts, a tremendously active concert culture, a handful of performance venues which impress by any standards, and a plethora of professional performers including a national orchestra – the Singapore Symphony – which sounds at times almost world class, it seems to be heading firmly in the right direction.
There is, though, a very long way for Singapore to go along this journey. This is painfully obvious from the fact that music in schools is still generally regarded as a competitive activity intended to increase corporate prestige rather than an important element in enriching an individual’s artistic sensitivities - something reinforced by the total obsession Singapore music teachers have with the competitive culture inculcated by the graded music examination system. There are also some very attractive-looking performance venues which suffer from appalling acoustics, hopelessly inadequate pianos and a downright bad environment for the performing of and listening to music, while the vast majority of performing ensembles in Singapore can be cringe-mockingly poor - as, indeed, can the SSO on occasions - and not seem to be aware of it.
However, the major barrier to overcome on the path to international credibility as a musical hub is the low expectations of audiences and, all too often, of those charged to lead, direct or observe musical performances. Audiences can’t be blamed; how can they know the difference between bad, mediocre, good and excellent if nobody guides them properly? I note a sad lack of the kind of Music Appreciation sessions which can so successfully be used to foster a proper perception of quality. Pre-concert talks, radio broadcasts focused on music, and educational introductions to music (either live or broadcast) are horrendously inconsistent – I’ve heard some fabulous ones, but rather more which are not just bad but fundamentally misguided – and audiences are so often subjected to the mediocre, that they assume it is the norm. They have no ambition to experience better, simply because they do not know it exists.
As a critic, I take on a responsibility for trying to prompt audiences to recognise the mediocre, to appreciate the good and to seek out the excellent. While I often get abuse for it (I still chuckle at the memory of a blog post in which I criticised an audience in another country for rapturously applauding a terrible concert; I was inundated with abusive emails from members of a Singapore youth ensemble who assumed that I was referring to them) I also get some appeals for critical guidance from those Singapore musicians genuinely anxious to improve beyond the standards which are still common currency in Singapore.
So I have to apologise to Singaporean countertenor Chan Wei En who asked me to attend a concert he gave last weekend and offer my opinions. He was hoping I might be able to offer suggestions for improvement. I made a few enquires beyond Singapore (he has been studying in the USA) and was told that I really had to hear him; that he was a very promising young countertenor. So I took a gamble and suggested to the Straits Times that his recital warranted a review in a public arena. They accepted and, in the event, there were no guidance points I could realistically offer him. I believe he is probably one of Singapore’s best young singers and one who has the potential to make waves on the world stage. Having said that, he also performed what for me was the most successful new work by any Singaporean composer that I have heard in recent years.
I mentioned all this in my Straits Times review. Now read on...