|The Sixteen's Singapore debut subjected to a press blackout|
It usually works like this. When an artist or concert promoter puts on a concert, they make early contact with critics to ensure that someone will attend and report in a public arena on the event. The artist or concert promoter usually hopes for a positive review which can then be used in future marketing materials, but opening the doors to critics – even inviting one and offering them free seating – does not absolve the critics of their responsibility to provide fair, impartial and honest assessments, nor ensure that the artist or concert promoter will receive unequivocally positive feedback. It is a gamble, but one most are keen to take, since the mere fact that the performance is reviewed imbues it with both professional legitimacy and helps raise the performing profile of the artist. A review also has that wider reach, going far beyond those who attended or even were interested in the performance, to provide a thermometer for the musical health of a venue and its location. In short, even a bad review is a winner, since it both keeps the artist’s name in the public eye long after the actual event and lets the wider world know of the musical climate in a particular place.
In Singapore it works rather differently. Artists rarely make direct contact with critics, and when they do it is usually on the basis of a perceived personal friendship which is erroneously assumed to ensure a kind and sympathetic review; in my case such artists have all too frequently quickly learnt the error of this approach, and only a few really outstanding concert promoters and artists now get in touch with me directly, knowing that I will be fair and honest rather than kind and sympathetic. Instead artists and concert promoters rely almost wholly on word-of-mouth to keep their activities in the public eye. Most concerts now are shared only by means of social media, which has the advantages of being free and effortless, but the big disadvantage of being accessible only to those who already know what is going on. I suppose, since Singapore is so tiny, that is an understandable practice; there is an assumption that everyone in Singaporean music circles knows each other, so there is no need to open the eyes of a wider public. That was driven home to me a couple of years ago when I accidentally stumbled across a concert in a studio off Orchard Road, went in, and found myself in a select group of barely a dozen enthusiasts. The concert organiser opened the proceedings by saying that it was “unusual” to find “our usual audience” so big! I felt unwelcome and slid away as quickly as I could after the concert ended.
Too many musical events in Singapore are run as private parties, and when, along with a couple of colleagues, I tried to start up a concert listings site, we quickly found strong opposition to it from those who did not want their concert activities to be publicized. For the outsider, trying to find out what is going on and when in Singapore is impossible. Private ticketing companies promote only the events for which they have been contracted to sell tickets, while many of the educational and amateur groups who stage concerts seem only to decide to do them at the last minute. NAFA regularly invites me to concerts the day before they take place, and just this week I have been told of two concerts this weekend, which had only been planned a week ago. I even had an invitation to one from the artist, unaware that less than a week’s notice for a concert was far too little for me to make space in an always crowded diary.
But, you may think, at least we have a couple of big public, world-class concert venues. They, surely, know how to put on and promote their concerts. In the case of the Victoria Concert Hall, that is certainly true. Being run by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, it handles its publicity professionally, it does all it can to promote its events to the public and it is welcoming to critics to whom it customarily offers support irrespective of the occasional brickbats we throw at tit.
Sadly, the same is not the case with the other major Singapore concert hall, the Esplanade. When it opened in 2002, it sent out invitations to critics around the world (I was invited as a representative of a London-based newspaper for whom I was then writing) and made sure its opening festival was made known to the wider world. It has never, so far as I am aware, ever invited international critics again, and is now positively anti-critic, effectively banning us from concerts it promotes.
In Singapore, we critics band together once a month and go over the concerts we have heard about in the coming month. We then argue about which ones deserve a review and argue even more energetically on who will cover which concert. Then we contact the national newspaper (the Straits Times) and try to “sell” these to the relevant editor. She invariably pares them down to a bare minimum, and we then go about obtaining tickets and informing the relevant organisers that we will be there in an official critical facility. I managed to bag the review of The Sixteen last night, and was duly thrilled, since I have reviewed in a whole range of international publications and on radio The Sixteen ever since they were first created, and was eager to be the person who reviewed their Singapore premiere performance.
For those who don’t know, The Sixteen is the finest chamber choir in the world today, its director, Harry Christophers, one of the most unassuming and talented of all choral directors, and his singers include the very best voices on the British vocal circuit. I may have heard them, live and recorded, hundreds of times, and the programme they presented in Singapore I have heard and reviewed elsewhere before. But last night was still a major event in Singapore’s musical calendar and warranted all the publicity and media attention it could get. The Esplanade was the promoter and handled the publicity for the concert. They never invited a critic, and I found out about the concert from The Sixteen themselves.
In the past, when I have been assigned to review a concert promoted by the Esplanade, I have found it difficult to get them to agree. I have resorted previously to buying my own ticket and turning up incognito. But as a single ticket-buyer, it is virtually impossible to select a seat of your choice using the SISTIC ticketing company which has exclusive rights to selling tickets for Esplanade events, and as all of us who are regular attendees at the Esplanade know, there are seats which are aural blind-spots. When I have found myself in one of these, I have commented adversely on the hall’s acoustics, which in turn has led to much anger from the Esplanade management. So now I am careful always to let them know that I intend to turn up and review a concert, and they provide me with a ticket in a prime aural location. Even then, it doesn't always work; last time, I turned up and they had no ticket for me, and refused me entry until the performers’ agent intervened and gave me one of their complimentary tickets. (I also got a glass of champagne or two in the interval from them, so that made it all worthwhile!)
For The Sixteen, however, the Esplanade was having none of it, and after telling them that I intended to attend to review the performance, they contacted the Straits Times and demanded that they would only allow me to review the concert if the paper also ran a feature on the event. No newspaper editor will ever allow anyone to dictate what goes into the paper, and so the Straits Times quite rightly refused. The Sixteen, therefore made its Singapore debut to a press blackout, and Singapore’s musical credibility has consequently been compromised.
Is it not time that the powers-that-be who run the Esplanade came clean and confessed that they are not interested in classical music, or indeed, in promoting any artistic activities other than the plethora of free, amateur shows put on in public areas in the hope of attracting large crowds to spend their money in the various retail and food outlets within the complex?