June 22, 2014

Albert Lin: Reflections on our local classical music scene

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Fellow Straits Times music critic, blogger, pianist and friend Albert Lin has penned a highly thought-provoking piece on the music scene in Singapore which deserves a re-post, so I’m posting it here. The original article can be found here.

BY ALBERT LIN

Despite vast investments by the government into the arts and music education in Singapore, the annual President’s Young Performers Concert remains the one realistic opportunity for our young musicians to perform with the national orchestra. Over the years, it has featured both accomplished professionals and promising young students, ranging from violinists Chan Yoong-Han and Grace Lee to pianists Lim Yan and Abigail Sin. But one curious fact is that apart from violist Lim Chun in 2002, only pianists and violinists have been selected.

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? 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? Perhaps the powers that be behind the orchestra should take a leaf out of the playbook of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, whose recent tour of China featured our very own Jazz Impressario Jeremy Monteiro and works of composers Eric Watson, Kelly Tang, and Ho Chee Kong. One cannot help but wonder what would have happened if Yeh Tsung was hired by the SSO instead. And to add insult to injury, on Harrison Parrott’s (SSO’s management team for their proms appearance) website, it states that “in support of Singaporean talent, local musicians and composers feature prominently in the concert season.” What blatant hypocrisy. If they are so ashamed of locals, perhaps they should drop the word “Singapore” from their name and affix some ambiguous term like “Metropolitan” to it instead.

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 No. 1, and whose rumoured fee would have funded the amount SSO pays to its President’s Young Performers for the next 40 years.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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?

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?

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.

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.

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