Singapore Youths Parlay Zeal Into Vibrant Orchestra

Orchestra of the Music Makers, Singapore 2013
Gifted high-school grads formed the Orchestra of the Music Makers so they could play together while pursuing other careers.
By Robert Markow

In just a few short years, Singapore has achieved a level of economic prosperity and cultural richness that many larger nations can only envy. The economy remains strong, unemployment is minimal (under 2%) and tourism is booming (well over 13 million visitors expected this year). One household in nine harbors a millionaire. The city (also a country, an island, a city-state, and an Asian tiger), with its population approaching five million, surges with energy, boasts a forest of slick skyscrapers and gleams with eye-popping brilliance. Just a dozen years ago, it ranked 97th in the lineup of the world’s most expensive cities. Today it is in the Top Ten. Education takes second place only to the military in government spending (a whopping 20%). And – get this – the National Arts Council last April increased its funding for the arts by 30% in major and seed grants.

OMM concertmasters Yoong Han Chan, Shaun Ho and Edward Tan (OMM on FB)
OMM concertmasters Yoong Han Chan, Shaun Ho and Edward Tan (Facebook)

Amidst all this nurturing is one of Singapore’s youngest orchestras, the Orchestra of the Music Makers, affectionately known as OMM, which celebrated its fifth anniversary with a performance on Aug. 28, the very date it gave its inaugural concert in 2008. The event was significant enough to attract a number of VIPs, including Sam Tan (Senior Parliamentary Secretary and Mayor), Professor Bernard Tan (OMM’s Chairman), and Kong Aik Goh (one of the upper-level officers at HSBC [Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation]).

The slightly cumbersome yet poetic name in fact does come from poetry. Some readers may be familiar with Elgar’s gorgeous but little-known oratorio The Music Makers, set to the eponymous poem by the 19th-century author Arthur O’Shaughnessy. Its opening lines, “We are the music makers, / And we are the dreamers of dreams,” accurately reflect the soul and spirit of the ensemble. Obviously, its members are “music makers.” But more importantly, they are also “the dreamers of dreams,” dreams that actually come true: the dream to form an orchestra of their own, the dream to continue playing after high school, the dream to serve one’s community and to contribute to a progressive society, the dream to “build up the world’s great cities,” and the dream to pass on to future generations “the glory about us clinging” (additional lines from O’Shaughnessy’s poem).

By 2008, Singapore already had an impressive number of orchestras of various sizes and descriptions. Leading the pack is the internationally-renowned Singapore Symphony Orchestra, with a schedule and programming as rich and full as that of any major orchestra in Europe or the U.S. On a somewhat less exalted scale are the Orchestra of the Singapore Lyric Opera and the Singapore Festival Orchestra (recently morphed into the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra), which perform intermittently. At the student level are the excellent Singapore National Youth Orchestra and the orchestra of Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, a superb school founded ten years ago with a curriculum modeled on that of the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. For adult amateurs, there are The Philharmonic Orchestra and the Braddell Heights Orchestra. Then there are half a dozen or so orchestras catering specifically to the Chinese, Malay and Tamil communities. All in all, enough to ask why Singapore needed still another orchestra. How OMM came into being is a story in itself resembling spontaneous combustion.

Tze Law Chan, OMM music director
Conductor Tze Law Chan was intrigued by OMM’s “purity of purpose.”

In 2007, a group of graduating students from several of Singapore’s high schools approached Tze Law Chan, a well-known, highly regarded Singaporean conductor and associate director of Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, about the idea of forming an orchestra in which they might continue to express themselves in music while pursuing professional studies in other fields. As Chan tells it, “I was intrigued when these students approached me with the idea. I advised them to write up a proposal, thinking that nothing would really come of it. Lofty ideas are one thing, implementing them is something else. Well, how wrong I was. What really struck me was their purity of purpose. They simply wanted the experience of performing large-scale symphonic works, and to that end were quite willing to go through the rigors of forming their own orchestra.

OMM members, still together after five years, have raised
OMM musicians, together since 2007, like to perform for charitable causes.

“By late 2007, they had drawn up their proposal and identified the main reasons for forming their own orchestra…. It seemed that these highly motivated youngsters really cared for the future of the music that had affected them deeply during their adolescent years. They were clearly privileged in their education and upbringing. Now they wanted to give back! How could I possibly say no to them? Now the question arose, how was the orchestra going to make its debut? As things turned out, in a unique and unexpected way.

“In Singapore, the HSBC had been supporting an annual award called the Youth Excellence Initiative. The initiative rewards enterprising talented young artists with a significant sum of money for professional development purposes. Award recipients are encouraged to contribute to the community through charitable work and fund-raising concerts…. In 2008, the bank enquired if I would conduct a gala fund-raising concert featuring as soloists several of the bank’s recent award winners. The president of Singapore would be the guest of honor…. I proposed that HSBC meet representatives from this group, which had not yet given a single concert, but which had the drive and determination that reflect the criteria of youth excellence the bank looks for in individuals. A few days later, over a nice lunch, the young musicians made their pitch and won.”

Since that time, OMM has performed numerous concerts in Singapore, many of them for charitable purposes. To date, it has raised over Sg$3.2 million (about US$2.5 million), much of it for ChildAid and the Children’s Cancer Fund. The orchestra has also traveled to Penang, Malaysia and to England, where it appeared at festivals in Cheltenham and Lichfield.

OMM is special in other ways, some of them unique. It is a self-governing body. Repertoire is chosen by the executive committee, subject to veto by Chan (a privilege he has not yet invoked). All musicians are volunteers, receiving no pay, including those who also serve on the executive committee. Like a number of other, highly visible orchestras, it has instituted a series of concerts along the lines of the BBC Proms or American pops. The name? OMMProms. One of the most unusual features of this orchestra is the overabundance of violists, which in most non-professional bands are the string players hardest to find. The most recent concert I heard had an extraordinary 14 violists, and more were turned away! In 2009, HSBC chose OMM as the recipient of its annual Sg$200,000 (US$157,000) Youth Excellence Initiative Award, the first time this award had been granted to an ensemble rather than to an individual.

OMM's Mahler Symphony No. 1
OMM’s Mahler Symphony No. 1

OMM has three recordings to its credit, the First and Second Symphonies of Mahler, and Elgar’s Violin Concerto. All are live recordings, and all are distinguished in at least one respect. Their Mahler First stands out in a saturated market for its brilliance and sheer visceral excitement, and for the exceptional technical achievement from a family of musicians whose average age at the time was eighteen and most of whom had surely never played Mahler in their lives. Their Mahler Second – no less impressive – was chosen by Singapore Airlines for a spot on its in-flight entertainment program. And the Elgar concerto features as soloist the immensely talented Singaporean Gabriel Ng, who played the work at the age of sixteen, the same age Yehudi Menuhin was when he made that first, legendary recording of the work back in 1932. (These are all available on iTunes.)

Esplanade (Hidetaka Mori © The Esplanade Co. Ltd.)
Esplanade Concert Hall (Hidetaka Mori © The Esplanade Co. Ltd.)

The concert on Aug. 28, given in Singapore’s iconic Esplanade Concert Hall, was designed for maximum effect. Aside from the three-minute Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin four years ago, the orchestra had yet to play any Wagner. With 2013 being Wagner year, the temptation was irresistible to focus on his music for a celebratory occasion. The main attraction was a 45-minute sequence consisting of the three best-known excerpts from Götterdämmerung (“Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey,” the “Funeral March,” and the “Immolation Scene”), preceded by the Prelude to Act III of Siegfried. There were a few ragged edges, and some passages needed greater transparency of texture, but overall these young musicians (average age 23) played with fervor, dedication and passion. There were lovely solos from the principal clarinet and bass clarinet. The bass trumpet, a notoriously unreliable and intractable beast to play, was expertly handled, and the nine-member double bass section provided a rock-solid foundation to the orchestra’s sound. There was even a thunder sheet for the climax of the Siegfried excerpt, though it rumbled on a bit too long. Chan conducted with skillful command of Wagner’s long lines. “Dawn” in Götterdämmerung was perfectly paced, culminating in a glorious outpouring of brass. The “Funeral March” had noble grandeur, and the apocalyptic moments of the final scene were positively thrilling. Unfortunately, German soprano Felicitas Fuchs did not have nearly the heft required for Brünnhilde, and the strain was evident.

The concert began with the “Prelude and Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde, which provided the evening’s most exquisite and refined playing. What a pleasure to hear all 12 cellos play the first note exactly together, without a trace of hesitation or indecision so often heard here. Likewise, woodwind chords were perfectly articulated, balanced and in tune. It was all thoroughly professional. Fuchs provided the vocal component of the “Liebestod,” which the orchestra brought to a splendid climax. Between the Wagner excerpts Melvyn Tan, probably Singapore’s best-known musician on the international circuit, gave a poised and thoughtful account of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4.

In its short, five-year history, OMM has created for itself a prominent role on Singapore’s classical music scene. Plans are already in place for it to perform Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand in 2015, the year Singapore turns fifty as an independent nation. In the meantime, visitors to this amazing country can catch upcoming concerts posted on the orchestra’s web site. Summing up the sensational and quite unexpected success of OMM over the course of its first five years, its music director and guiding spirit Tze Law Chan described the experience as “quite an amazing ride.” One can only speculate what the orchestra will ride forth to achieve during the next five years.

Formerly a horn player in the Montreal Symphony, Robert Markow now writes program notes for that orchestra and for many others in Canada, the U.S. and Asia. He writes regularly for such classical music journals as American Record Guide, Fanfare, Symphony, Strings, The Strad, Opera, Opera News and Opera Canada

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