Classical hothouse

SINGAPORE - Ten years ago, not only did the first music conservatory here open its doors and take in its first cohort of students, but it also started a symphony of changes for the music scene in Singapore.

Today, Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music graduates play in the country's established orchestras - seven in the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) and two in the Singapore Chinese Orchestra - while even more are setting up their own groups such as the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra and the Asian Contemporary Ensemble.

The conservatory, part of the National University of Singapore (NUS), has also strengthened the classical music culture here. Faculty and students give free music workshops in local schools and tutor budding musicians in the Singapore National Youth Orchestra and Orchestra of the Music Makers.

They offer more than 300 free events a year, such as concerts on the Kent Ridge campus and at downtown locations such as the Asian Civilisations Museum. Such events reached over 24,000 people last year - not bad for a boutique music school with a total enrolment of 220.

On Sept 4, The Conservatory Orchestra celebrates the music school's 10th anniversary with a ticketed performance at the Esplanade Concert Hall under the baton of noted American conductor Robert Spano, music director of high-profile international training camp, the Aspen Music Festival and School.

Mr Spano's interest in appearing here is testament to the growing reputation of the Singapore conservatory, says director Bernard Lanskey, 53, who has been with the school since 2006.

Yong Siew Toh has had its programme ratified by the elite Association of European Conservatories in 2010 and is the only Asian university to offer a full joint degree with the prestigious Peabody Institute in Baltimore, he says. Partly because students receive a full scholarship to cover board as well as tuition - from $10,250 for Singaporeans to twice that for foreigners a year - at least 400 applications come in every year to fill the 50 open places.

More than three-quarters of the applications are from foreign students such as violinist Adelya Nartadjieva, 22, from Tashkent in Uzbekistan, now in her fourth year here. She got into the famed Moscow Conservatory, but decided the Singapore scholarship would mean less of a burden for her single mother. She says: "This is my dream, all I could ask for, the teachers, the facilities. I even learnt English here and people are very supportive."

In spite of tough competition from overseas students, 30 per cent of the enrolment is Singaporean, with many graduates choosing to stay on as teachers, musicians or arts administrators.

MrLow Jia Hua, 32, general manager of the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra, says the conservatory launched his career. "The music degree gave me an edge," says the son of two tailors, who could not have afforded an overseas education.

"The idea was to enable Singaporean students to remain in Singapore to study, when in the past they went abroad," says Prof Lanskey. The conservatory plans to offer a master's in music soon and more opportunities for overseas exchanges with institutions such as the Lausanne Conservatoire in Switzerland.

Two decades ago, no one would have dreamt that such a high-level music school would take off here.

The plan for a Singapore Conservatory of Music was put forward in 1998 by then Deputy Prime Minister and now President Tony Tan Keng Yam. It was the first music school here to offer a bachelor of music degree and the only one until 2011, when the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa) began its bachelor of music (honours) programme with the Royal College of Music in London.

Prof Lanskey welcomes the Nafa degree as a much-needed "alternative pathway" for hopeful Singaporean music students, but adds that Yong Siew Toh's partnership with Peabody is of a different order.

For example, students from Peabody visit the Singapore campus, while there is no reciprocal exchange between Nafa and the London school yet.

Visiting Yong Siew Toh last week, President Tan, 73, called it "the pre-eminent music conservatory in Asia" and said in a press statement: "The conservatory is now an integral part of our efforts to build a rich and vibrant cultural landscape in Singapore."

Yong Siew Toh was first started at NUS under the aegis of Dr Steven Baxter, former dean of the Peabody Institute. He left in 2007 after being diagnosed with cancer and died in 2010.

Head of piano studies Thomas Hecht, 52, was hired when the conservatory was just "a nice office" and a sheaf of paper plans. He was drawn in by DrBaxter's enthusiasm and the state of the art resources promised. His fondest memory is of choosing top-end Steinway pianos from Hamburg, Germany, for his future students. An upright piano starts at around $140,000 and his 30 students share around a dozen instruments.

"We have facilities that most schools can't even imagine," he says. In other conservatories, 10 students might fight for one piano. Students of string instruments are equally privileged - they play on 19th-century Guadagnini cellos or 18th-century Gagliano violins loaned by the Rin Collection of Singaporean businessman Rin Kei Mei.

With such resources behind them, it may be no wonder that conservatory graduates stand out. Violinist Loh Jun Hong, who just finished his master's from the Juilliard School in New York, has taken top prizes at the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra Concerto Competition in Boston and the 13th Andrea Postacchini International Competition held in Fermo, Italy.

Then there are award-winning Singaporean pianists Abigail Sin - who was named a Young Steinway Artist at age 18, allowing her to practise in the company's showrooms around the world - and hearingimpaired Azariah Tan, who has taken top prizes in contests in Asia and America.

Students like these ensure the Singapore conservatory is becoming well-known far and wide. "I knew we'd be big when people actually mention the name Yong Siew Toh and don't say: 'Oh, you're from the Peabody in Asia,'" Prof Hecht says with a laugh.

Mr Anthony Brice, 36, general manager of the SSO, endorses the view that the conservatory has put Singapore on the map for classical music.

"It makes Singapore a more attractive place for soloists to come to. A lot of them really value the opportunity to educate the students," he says. Violinists Leonidas Kavakos and Renaud Capucon will present recitals at the conservatory and perform with the SSO next month and in October.

As the conservatory attracts more musicians, more collaborations result. For example, The Conservatory Orchestra's principal conductor Jason Lai is an associate conductor for the SSO's new season, and conductor Mark Wigglesworth, who visited the conservatory last year, will lead the SSO in January. The conservatory's programmes also help educate and grow the audience locally, says Mr Brice.

Looking ahead, some local musicians hope the conservatory will do more for other genres of Singapore music in the next decade.

Mr Terence Ho, 44, general manager of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, says he would like to see more collaborations between the conservatory and his ensemble, or Chinese orchestras in schools.

Similarly, Malay traditional musician Ariffin Abdullah of the Sri Mahligai ensemble would like the conservatory to hold workshops or open classes for folk musicians like him. He and his colleagues are keen to learn Western musical notation so as to communicate more easily with younger Malay musicians, or Indian and Chinese musical groups.

The conservatory already makes it compulsory for students to give free workshops to primary and secondary school students. Prof Lanskey says the institution is looking at ways to integrate further into the Singapore context, and thinks the conservatory's impact will be appreciated more in the years to come.

About seven cohorts have graduated so far and these graduates are only now returning after their master's and doctorate degrees.

Yong Siew Toh graduate Tang Jia, 30, left a teaching job at Shandong University more than two years ago to play cello with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra. This was partly out of a desire to give back to the country that "gave me the best facilities to study" and partly because the music scene has developed enormously.

"Now there are so many musical groups, more than one opera company and more than 10 amateur orchestras," says the Chinese national who is now a permanent resident. Many of these are helmed by her former classmates or juniors.

Similarly, Singaporean pianist Clarence Lee, 23, is doing his graduate diploma at the conservatory in between performing solo at locations around Europe and Asia. "My hope is to perform all around the world, but still stay in my country," he says.

Book it

Conservatory orchestra series: 10th Anniversary celebration concert

Where: Esplanade Concert Hall
Sept 4, 7.30pm
Admission: $15 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to

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