Building a beautiful SSO

Building a beautiful SSO

SINGAPORE - From the vantage point of the executive lounge at the Conrad Centennial Hotel, Choo Hoey looks out of the window at his old office in the former City Hall building and smiles.

"There I began my job to sit and dream an orchestra," says the 80-year- old Singaporean conductor, who was the first music director of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) and tonight, he conducts its 35th anniversary concert at the Esplanade Concert Hall.

The SSO's first office was at the former City Hall, now being reconstructed into part of the National Art Gallery of Singapore. The flagship classical orchestra now operates out of the Bank of China Building not far away.

Led by Choo from 1978 to 1996, it has gone from a 41-member chamber ensemble to an established orchestra of about 100 professionals with critically acclaimed concerts and recordings under its belt.

This year, it has been invited to play for the first time at the BBC Proms in London, a two-month festival of classical music considered one of the biggest in the world, with performances broadcast on BBC TV and radio.

Choo's eyes widen as an SSO spokesman tells him about the Proms debut during the interview. "That's very good, that's a very big audience," says the semi-retired conductor, who now lives with his Greek wife in Greece.

It is success on a scale he dared not dream of 36 years ago, when he left conducting gigs in Greece to set up a national orchestra for Singapore at the invitation of then deputy prime minister Goh Keng Swee.

The SSO's first concert in January 1979 at the Singapore Conference Hall featured 41 musicians, mostly expatriates and some students, and a repertoire advertising the conductor's misgivings.

The programme included Schubert's Unfinished Symphony and American composer Charles Ives' aptly titled work, The Unanswered Question. "Because I really had a lot of unanswered questions," Choo says, laughing. "Really, a very suggestive programme because I was also very unsure."

He had already achieved some success in Europe. For career musicians at the time, Singapore held nothing, he says.

Music had always been his life, ever since he was seven and his teacher- father Choo Seng brought back to their home in Palembang, Sumatra, a quarter- size violin and instruction book titled Teach Yourself Violin.

"My father was an art lover and he thought art was necessary to enrich our spiritual health. It doesn't matter whether you can play an instrument or not, the important thing is to appreciate it," says Choo. His mother, teacher Wang Siu Ying, shared the same belief.

His parents sent him to Singapore in 1947 for his own safety, as Indonesia fought for independence against Dutch colonisers. He studied for four years at Chinese High School and took his first violin lessons from Goh Soon Tioe, then "the only and best Singaporean teacher".

While graduating from high school, Choo also sat the ABRSM music examinations conducted by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music and got the highest score in violin.

His parents sent him to the Royal Academy of Music in London. He studied violin, horn, composition and conducting and on graduating in 1955, went to Brussels in Belgium to study violin with Andre Gertler.

He says he was biding his time, waiting to break into the world of conducting while expanding his repertoire and contacts. "My intention was always to pursue conducting," he says. "I was fascinated by a group of people making so many beautiful sounds, all the sounds merging together and making a very beautiful, complete universe."

In Belgium, he hounded impressarios until he won a slot to conduct a chamber ensemble. To this concert, he invited musical kingmakers such as Marcel Couvelier, director of the Brussels Philharmonic Society.

Couvelier was so impressed that he asked Choo to fill in for Spanish conductor Ataulfo Argenta, who had died days before a scheduled concert with the Belgian National Orchestra. That 1958 debut set the stage for other engage- ments in Europe, including the London Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic and Moscow Philharmonic.

Choo settled in Greece in 1969 after meeting and marrying his wife, Alexandra, an archaeologist, now in her 60s. They have two grown-up sons, one a stem cell researcher and the other, a maritime lawyer.

Choo had regular stints with the Athens State Orchestra, Hellenic Radio and Television Orchestra, and Greek National Orchestra in 1977, when he received the invitation to return and help set up a national orchestra.

"To come back was a great challenge. Singapore had nothing at that time," he recalls. "There was no music school, where do you get music talent to form an orchestra? Unlike London, where I can call Guildhall, here I have to scout and audition for members."

Yet as an artist, he was drawn to the enormity of the task ahead. "To go from nothing to something, this is a creative process. It's a challenge, but I find it better than to continue something already existing."

In 1978, he says, he was shown to a single-room office at the City Hall building, and he began by picking up the telephone and calling every musical contact he could think of.

Newspaper advertisements led to auditions in June that year, and among the successful applicants was a hopeful violinist named Lynnette Seah.

Now 56 and the co-leader of SSO's strings section, she recalls her excitement and nervousness at the audition. "My dream then was to have an orchestra in Singapore," she says. Only 21, she was named acting leader of the string section for the first 18 months, then moved to a deputy position when Czech-born Pavel Prantl took over as concertmaster.

Scouting tours of the Philippines, South Korea and Malaysia yielded a few players but the real windfall came when New York's Eastman School of Music's touring wind ensemble made a stop here, allowing Choo to recruit an entire wind section from the students and graduates. Among them was horn player Edward Deskur, then only 19. Now 54, he says he was then so young that Choo had to act as his legal sponsor in matters such as setting up a bank account.

"Mr Choo was very good at making sure things were solved," says Deskur, who played for eight months with the SSO before returning to the United States to complete his studies.

He returned earlier this month to play two concerts with the SSO, though he had to return to his home in Zurich before tonight's anniversary concert. "There were a lot of memories when we were on stage again. It's a feeling of pride that the orchestra is continuing."

High turnover of musicians was a serious problem in the first few years of the SSO, Seah says, and media reports from the 1980s put the blame on the comparatively low pay scale. In 1981, 53 of the then 56-strong ensemble wrote a strongly-worded letter complaining about the salaries and unequal treatment - salaries ranged from $1,200 monthly to $2,000 for top-tier principal players, mostly foreign musicians.

Dr Goh, then deputy prime minister, put his weight behind the complaint and salaries were no longer divided on the foreign and local scale.

The SSO management also increased appeals for corporate sponsorships and held fund-raising drives such as Adopt A Musician.

Choo says of these problems: "In my time, every penny was as big as a wheel. We couldn't afford to engage big artists. Oh, money was a perennial problem. Really, it was terrible."

In the early years, he adds, he called in favours from friends in order to bring in guest conductors and soloists. They included Italian violin virtuoso and conductor Salvatore Accardo, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer-conductor Karel Husa, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Lang Lang in 1997, when the now-famous Chinese pianist was still a student at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.

Guest musicians had to be carefully selected, Choo says, "because musicians like to talk shop and can create very bad impressions". He was afraid that some would damn the fledgling orchestra when what the players needed was guidance and encouragement.

"At first, I invited all my friends and said, 'I beg you, come with the spirit of helping, teaching these youngsters. Of course, criticism you need, but be more generous in your approach and help to give confidence.'"

His style bore fruit by the 1990s. Overseas tours made European audiences sit up and pay attention, and the SSO won the attention of noted Finnish conductor Okko Kamu, who was named principal guest conductor in 1995.

By 1996, Choo decided to step down as music director. It was a decision mutually agreed on by him and the management. He was 62 and keen to move on and local music critics felt the SSO could benefit from newer hands at the helm. He says: "I must be practical, I have to move on because life is relentless."

Current conductor and music director Shui Lan, 56, took over in 1997 and pays handsome tribute to Choo.

Shui says: "Sixteen years ago, I thought this was a very good regional orchestra and had many good people recruited by Choo Hoey. He made the widest repertoire for the SSO, which was good because it was very new. He introduced many unknown works to Singapore. That was a very good foundation and one of the reasons that attracted me to accept the position."

Choo himself is "semi-retired" now, though he does return periodically to lead the SSO as conductor emeritus, and has gigs with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra as well.

He helps groom orchestras in China and Europe, in between long breaks at his home outside Peloponnese in Greece or visiting his sons in London.

"The whole progress of the orchestra has made me very happy," he says. "It's been a very interesting experience seeing the growth of the orchestra. It's very exciting and encouraging."

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