Responses to “Reflections On Our Local Classical Music Scene”

Back in June 2014, Albert Lin wrote an article entitled Reflections On Our Local Classical Music Scene. You can read it here:

Even if you don’t agree with Albert, his article raised many interesting questions. Within a few days, his post attracted countless shares and the viewership of his blog increased by more than 500%.

Lim Tee Heong, a lecturer at NAFA, posted the article on Facebook and attracted many supporters quickly, prompting Pang Siu Yuin, ex-Senior Manager of the SSO, to write a series of responses to Albert’s article. I obtained her permission to compile and publish them, but for some reason I didn’t hit the “publish” button.

Well, better late than never! Here goes:

“The obvious reason is that the piano and violin are seen as the glamour instruments of classical music, and are considered the conventional choice for soloists and hence would be easier on box-office sales. But if the purpose of this concert is to showcase the brightest talents on our shores, surely then the opportunity should go to the most deserving and not just the most popular? Why not feature a work by a promising composer too, considering the general lack of support the orchestra shows for them during their season?”

SY: For the President Young Performer’s Concert, there’s an open call for audition. The most suitable candidates at the audition are selected to perform with the SSO. The SSO has given opportunities to conductors (Darrell Ang and Tan Kang Ming, before they were given appointments with the SSO) e.g. Wong Kah Chun sharing a programme with Lan Shui this season. In recent memory, Emily Koh’s work was given a performance at a season concert. Kevin Loh premiered Bernard Tan’s Guitar concerto at an SSO concert.

The President Young Performer’s is not the only platform for young Singaporean musicians. The SSO does also feature them in the main season calendar.

“Attaching our country’s name to the orchestra does not give it a national identity, and their debut at the BBC proms will see our nation represented by a Chinese-American conductor with an American concertmaster and a Swiss soloist performing a concerto by a Chinese-American composer. Are we so ashamed of our own talents?”

SY: Personally I think we could do better here. However, the realities of programming while on tour is that this is a collaborative effort between promotors/impresarios and the Orchestra.

(I want to emphasise here that I am writing this in my personal capacity, and not authorise to be a spokesperson for the SSO.)

The SSO and SCO are held to different comparative benchmarks when viewed from the perspective of the foreign presenting organisations so that there is probably less bargaining power on the side of the SSO if it wants to secure a date in prestigious venues. Unfortunately, at this stage of the SSO’s development, it does need to accede more to the taste of the presenters. The strategy now is to build an international reputation with more appearances at key musical centres in the world. As we build upon this strategy, over time, the Orchestra will hopefully find itself being in a position to dictate its selection of soloists/composers/works.

So ultimately, the tour programming is a function of box office considerations on the part of the promoters rather than the fact that the SSO being ashamed of our own talents.

“According to a former arts administrator, featuring local talents brings down the standard of the event. An interesting point considering this said person inserts herself into SSO chamber series programmes whenever possible, and she no longer does it for a living. If the consensus is that engaging a foreign artist is a safer option, one must not have witness the debacle that was Li Yundi doing his best David Helfgott impersonation in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto №1, and whose rumoured fee would have funded the amount SSO pays to its President’s Young Performers for the next 40 years.”

SY: First sentence of the paragraph: I don’t know where there quote came from. I don’t even think it’s quoted out of context or misquotation. I would be interested to know the reference for this point.

Second sentence: I wonder how the author knows that the said person inserts herself into SSO chamber series programmes. Because the circumstances of my playing with the musicians at the SSO are either I was asked by a musician, invited by the Orchestra representative, was a last minute replacement due to cancellation/changes to programming (where the Orchestra could not secure the services of other pianists on the substitution list). All programming decisions go through an approval process and in cases where there could be conflict of interest, there was additional permission sought. I have been very careful on this point and stand by my reputation that everything that I have done is above board.

Second half of paragraph: one example of a (once popular) gala soloist who had behaved in bad form does not make an example of the point about engaging foreign artist. Someone clarify for me the logic of the argument in this paragraph.

“This attitude has unfortunately rubbed off on other musical groups in Singapore, unconsciously or otherwise. Before I continue any further, I must reiterate that I have no problem against the presence of foreign musicians. Singapore has benefitted greatly and some of these musicians have made it a point to contribute to the society that welcomed them with open arms. Spaniard flautist Roberto Alvarez has single-handedly transformed the landscape of flute playing in Singapore, and violinists Alexander Souptel and Zhang Zhen Shan have trained a legion of prize winners. The argument is not whether foreigners or locals are better, but against the belief that foreigners are better not based on merit but because their passports are of a different colour.”

SY: As far as I know, musicians are selected based on auditions, recommendations, etc. As far as I know of the vetting process within the SSO, I can say that the only time we give more positive weight in the consideration is when the musician being evaluated is Singaporean.

Merit still plays the major part in any artistic decision. I don’t understand how anyone who has participated in a selection process such as an audition or artistic vetting for programming (unless it is a rigged competition) would think otherwise.

For example, if a music school were holding auditions to select students to accept for enrollment, the merits of the musician would be of primary consideration followed by the overall balance of the whole entire entering class.

Unfortunately, even though it sounds sexy to say passport wins but I can say with sufficient confidence that in the world of music, no one cares about whether you went to Julliard or got a PhD, what matters most is whether you can play the notes musically.

“But if these groups are dipping their hands into the coffers of the National Arts Council, whose kitty comes from taxes paid by Singaporeans, then they have a duty to do more for the locals. Or are we only good enough for them to take money from and nothing else? It’s bad enough that their sense of self-entitlement sees them demand that society subsidize their hobby.”

SY: Don’t know which ‘these groups’ are but there’s a place for foreign, local, regional, mixed, traditional, ethnic, melting pot, etc. Again, my personal opinion on this is that NAC should fund a whole range of arts to serve the community such that there is diversity in the ecosystem. That is how I would characterise the situation rather than painting it in terms of foreign/local (do more for local).

I think we can all think of examples of self-entitled egos and personalities demanding everything that revolves round them subsidise their hobby. Just because we can identify with this archetype does not make this generalisation the majority of the ecosystem.

“It is telling that the SSO ceased its partnership with the Public Service Commission and stopped awarding scholarship holders a place in the orchestra upon graduation. And since then, how many Singaporeans have joined them? Oh, sure they hire locals when they need freelance players to fill the space, but that’s only if they’re desperate for numbers while their more established players go on leave for concerts nobody wishes to play for. How many born-and-bred Singaporeans currently play in the orchestra? A whopping 12!”

SY: PSC scholarship just wasn’t serving the needs of the SSO anymore, these days, most musicians get a graduate degree, times have changed, and we all need to move on.

The SSO is aware of that since the termination of the PSC scholarship the pipeline of young musicians joining the Orchestra has been terminated. There have been efforts made to recruit more Singaporeans but the pool is small and every individual has their own personal reasons for not joining the Orchestra.

This is one area where I think it is more effective to have a conversation discussion about this phenomenon. The Orchestra is looking at modifying the audition process to benefit Singaporeans and to create more part-time positions because the feedback from the younger Singaporean set has been that they prefer to have a more varied career rather than focus on a full-time orchestra career. Unfortunately, that just means that there may be more Singaporean musicians signed on as freelance musicians rather than full-time musicians in order that the Orchestra helps to provide more orchestral playing experience to the younger musicians starting out in their careers.

Characterising the situation as “desperate for numbers” is not exactly the right description.

“Can you imagine an American orchestra with only 10% of its members local? Being globalized means that the influx of foreigners is inevitable, but it does not mean that locals and foreigners do not stand on equal footing. Are some of the foreigners being hired better than our locals? And we are not even talking about cheaper alternatives. So if the hired guns are neither better nor cheaper, it indeed is puzzling as to why they were preferred.”

SY: The top American orchestras probably have their hometown talents in the minority. Again, I reiterate, in the Orchestra setting, preference is given to musicians who demonstrate superior musicians skills (in performing, sight-reading, ensemble work, etc.) plus a collegial attitude.

“What’s the point of spending all that cash on lavish events such as Singapore Day in London (which interestingly is not open to public unless you have a Singaporean friend) or the Singapore Biennale? To prove a point that Singaporeans are only worth celebrating when there’s an incentive to do so? Or is it meant to placate the dissenting voices? To claim that enough is being done for local musicians/artists based on one-off events is akin to saying that one is an excellent spouse because you bought your partner flowers on his/her birthday, while sleeping with his/her best friend for the other 364 days of the year.”

SY: What’s the point of this paragraph? The analogy in the last sentence is connected to which argument?

“Why are we encouraging our youngsters to pursue an education/career in music, if we are here putting roadblocks up for them when they return? Are we just creating a market to support ourselves? So that we create an environment where we have enough students interested in music enough to purchase concert tickets?”

SY: Since when did the Singapore society encourage youngsters to pursue education/career in music? And where/what are the roadblocks when they “return”? Can’t we focus on allowing our local talent to fulfill their individual potential by giving them the space to understand and develop their own voice and pathways in order to be living a useful fulfilled life?

“What exactly awaits them when they do return to Singapore? How many talents are being laid to waste playing in random orchestras and playing wedding gigs? How many choose to not even return at all?”


Get real. No one owes you a living. Talented or not.

“It indeed is their perogative if they prefer to hire foreigners, but they should also cut the pretence about supporting local talent and do away with patronizing events such as the President’s Young Performers concert which often sees the orchestra under-prepared and concertmaster missing from action.”

SY: The Orchestra does not prefer to hire foreigners. Period.

The Orchestra is frankly sometimes under-prepared for concerts but that happens mostly in the non-main-season concerts, generally not for Prez Young Performers. Sometimes, the concert may come across less than polished because the Orchestra needs to be more accommodating towards the performers. Sometimes, the selected performer does well beyond expectation that the Orchestra decides to re-engage them again for the main season offering (e.g. Loh Jun Hong).

The reality about rostering musicians is that everyone gets a certain number of weeks rotated off. Generally, the principal players are expected to play in the concerts that the Music Director conducts. Therefore you will find that principal players get rotated off for the concerts with guest conductors. It’s as simple as that. Concerts conducted by the Principal Guest Conductor Okko Kamu are often missing section principals for that reason.

“If this is the blueprint for the future of the Arts in Singapore, then we are doomed. Right now it is not about culture, but creating a money-spinning industry aligned with the rest of Singapore.”

SY: Clearly, we are NOT doomed. The classical music scene is far more vibrant than anyone could have predicted ten years ago. The younger Singaporean musicians are forging their own paths and creating new exciting organisations, events, music. Singapore Woodwind Festival, Lorong Boys, chamber music programmes in different venues (various different musuems etc.).

That’s all well and good. The diversity of the ecosystem that is not just the SSO is but the best development in the music scene anyone could ask for.