Secreted away on the top floor of Singapore’s Victoria Concert Hall is a visual exhibition – I would say an audio-visual one, but someone has vandalised the audio devices – which presents a skeletal but informative outline of the building’s history as a concert hall, theatre and public meeting place. It is well worth seeking out, especially for those who regularly visit the place and never think of looking beyond the auditoria and toilet facilities. Having turned up too early for Saturday evening’s concert and finding the doors barred, I took the opportunity to revisit some of the exhibits and was struck by a faded newspaper page from the 1930s which noted that concerts given by the Singapore Musical Society had brought the starting time forward – from 9.55pm to 9.45pm (I think – I know it was sometime well after 9pm!). As the concert I was too early to attend was due to start at 7.30pm, this set me wondering about changes to concert-going habits in Singapore.
For the past five years I have been heavily involved in a major research project into the role of western (classical) music in Singapore society and in the history of its practitioners and performance venues. That research has amassed a huge body of data gathered by students interviewing concert-goers at every kind of concert and in every venue imaginable. To date, I have material from 1092 individuals, covering such things as dress code, musical quality, performance expectations, audience behaviour and programme choices. I have tried not to tie the hands of those students who collect this data by giving them specific goals; instead I have sent them out with a general request to find out what Singapore audiences like and dislike about attending classical concerts.
Without wishing to pre-empt the research findings, which I expect to publish in the next two or three years, one issue which is hardly ever raised by audience members is the starting time of concerts. It seems that Singaporeans are happy with the current near-standard start time of 7.30pm. When one of Singapore’s newer orchestras, re:Sound, declared that they were going to “break with tradition” and begin their concerts at 8.15pm, some comments were made, but it’s too early yet to find any quantifiable resistance to this later start-time. In any case, Singapore concerts notoriously start later than advertised and audiences seem to make a point of arriving even later.
The Thailand Philharmonic starts its evening concerts at 7pm, the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s concerts usually start at 8pm, while the Malaysian Philharmonic begins its main stage concerts at 8.30pm (in its very early stages, part of my job was to run down to the bar in the shopping complex outside the hall to warn them to remain open beyond their usual 10pm closing time on those weekdays when concerts were held; and the fact that they did has kept them securely in business for the last 20 years).
What dictates the ideal concert start time and why does it vary from country to country? The answer is simple; local lifestyles. The 7.00pm start time for the Bangkok orchestra is necessitated by the problems of getting around the city after dark, while the 8.30pm start in Kuala Lumpur was decided upon to avoid any potential clash with Muslim prayer times. 7.30pm seems to suit Singaporeans, who finish work usually around 6.30pm. and like to catch the concert before going on to eat or heading off home. But while nobody in our research registered any strong feeling about the 7.30pm concert start time, many showed a distinct preference for knowing in advance concert ending times.
When I wrote the programme notes I made a point of putting in the most accurate timing for each individual work I could find, based on previous performances by the conductor or messages coming out of rehearsals. But this only told people who were already at the concert, and only now are the powers-that-be putting out estimates of concert ending times in advance for potential ticket purchasers. Our research has shown that this is something Singapore concert-goers would dearly appreciate; yet it seems beyond the wit of anyone to get it right. Most announcements about concert length are grotesquely inaccurate - the idiocy of looking at the CD tracklist and assuming it works in a live concert is still very much the way many concert-organisers in Singapore guess timings.
The ultimate failure of this came on Saturday’s concert. Billed as lasting 60 minutes, it actually lasted 100 – and did not even have an interval. Quite how such a monumental miscalculation over timing was made defies belief. After all, this was new concert series, modelled on the “Swire Denim” series in Hong Kong, where evening concerts offer unusual repertory but encased tightly within a 60 minute time frame. Those who might have been tempted to attend in the knowledge that they would still be able to catch a movie or an extended dinner after the concert, will know better next time.
Back in the 1930s people worked later, dined longer, and ended their evening with the concert. We live in a different age, and the idea of grabbing a bite to eat both before and after the concert is the norm; as is the idea that the concert comes at the beginning of the evening, not at its climax. It is time we appreciated this change in lifestyle amongst Singaporeans and looked to a more precise and reliable way of letting them know, not when the concert begins, but when it ends.
I reviewed Saturday’s concert for the Straits Times. A sub-editor didn’t like my piece as it “didn’t say enough about the music”; I would argue that my job is to review the performance not the repertory, but changes were made to the published piece (not all by me). Here’s the original;
Reich in 60 Minutes
Singapore Symphony Orchestra/Brad Lubman (conductor)
Victoria Concert Hall
Saturday (12 January)
The first of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s new Red Balloon concert series did not quite go according to plan. Billed as programmes of unusual repertory contained within an hour’s concert, instead of the promised 60 minutes of Reich, we had 40 minutes of his music and around another 40 of music by Bela Bartok.
Add to that the concert’s late start and two extended on-stage commentaries given to drown out the clutter of major stage reorganisations, and we had a concert which lasted as long a full-length evening concert.
A part of the plan which did survive was that of lifting the SSO up and above its familiar territory of late-19th/early-20th century repertory. The music of Steve Reich may be about the most accessible there is by a contemporary composer, and it has already attracted an enthusiastic following in Singapore in the wake of recent visits by high-profile Reich-performing ensembles. The Great Man himself came here a while back and performed before a packed and adulatory Esplanade audience.
But Reich’s music is not a frequent feature of the SSO repertory, and we might have hoped that Brad Lubman, who has regularly collaborated with Reich, could have inspired the musicians to find something in this music other than sheer hard labour.
Pulse, apparently receiving its Singapore premiere, carried on relentlessly above a pounding bass guitar – incongruously played by a bald-headed guy in white tie and tails – but lacked any variety of tone or colour, while the famous City Lights, cleverly intermingling sampled sounds from the New York streets with orchestral effects, never fails to amaze, but managed, here, to sound remarkably ordinary despite Lubman’s obvious involvement in the music. What emerged most powerfully from these performances was a sense of such intense concentration from the players that one expected to see smoke billowing from their ears.
There was plenty of musical smoke wafting around, but that was part of the weird, almost spooky soundworld of Bela Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. The sole reason for its incongruous inclusion in this concert appeared to be that it was written the same year that Reich was born. But it was a good choice in that it gave the SSO the opportunity to play something more firmly in their comfort-zone.
From the desiccated, eerie viola theme which opens the work to the raucous razzmatazz of the finale, the orchestra was clearly in its element. The gentlemen of the percussion section delivered their parts with the flair, dynamism and brilliance we have come to expect of them, while Shane Thio was a rock-solid presence on the piano. Whether or not Aya Sakou was equally adept must remain a mystery – from my vantage point in the balcony, her celesta was totally inaudible.
Only one person seemed uneasy with all this musical fun; Maestro Lubman. His rigid, sharply-focused beat gave the work a certain militaristic character, but marched right past all the many moments of musical magic with barely a sideways glance.