Orchestrating good deeds through music

SINGAPORE - When a ragtag group of teenage boys first approached Chan Tze Law in 2006 for help - they wanted to set up their own volunteer orchestra - the maestro had doubts that the ambitious idea would work.

"I said to them, 'Well, if you are really that keen on doing this, send me a proposal'. I was thinking, of course, that this was a bunch of 16-year-old boys - I'd never get a proposal because the next day they'd go off and play football," recalls Prof Chan.

Much to his surprise, they kept to their word, and thus the Orchestra of the Music Makers (OMM) was born.

After 18 months of intensive planning, OMM gave its debut performance at the HSBC Youth Excellence Awards in 2008. The opportunity to perform involved a stroke of luck - just as OMM's founding members were looking for a stage, the organisers of the HSBC event were in urgent need of an orchestra.

"Within days of offering them the opportunity, they managed to form a full orchestra," says Goh Kong Aik, head of HSBC Group Communications and Corporate Sustainability.

"It really shows you what can happen when youth and passion are combined," he adds, marvelling at OMM's ability to gather 80 members - who had previously played in various student and youth orchestras - at such short notice.

One year after that first performance, OMM became the first group to clinch HSBC's Youth Excellence Award for music, bagging $200,000 to fund its operations. "Excellence is a really nebulous quality, but we knew this group exemplified that - not just with their skills, but also with their drive to do good and give back to the community," says Mr Goh.

Today, the five-year-old ensemble has around 140 active members, with an average age of 23.

To celebrate its fifth anniversary, OMM is putting on a one-night-only performance at the Esplanade Concert Hall next Wednesday. The evening will showcase masterworks by Beethoven and Wagner, and will include performances by Munich- based soprano Felicitas Fuchs and Singapore-born pianist Melvyn Tan.

As a self-professed "volunteer philanthropic orchestra", all of OMM's members play for free in order to raise funds for worthy causes - including Prof Chan, who is the ensemble's music director and conductor.

To date, the group has helped to raise more than $3 million for charity through pro bono performances on platforms like ChildAid - an annual charity concert jointly organised by The Straits Times and The Business Times.

In giving to others, OMM has also created a space for young and non-professional musicians to keep playing and performing, even after they graduate from school and university ensembles.

OMM's president Toh Xue Qian tells BT: "What's special is how all of us are actually volunteers. We all have different jobs in the day, and even those of us who are studying aren't pursuing music."

The 21-year-old is reading law at NUS.

Thanks to its rotational turnover rate - with members going off to university or the workforce, and coming back thereafter - Prof Chan estimates that just over 500 people have played in the ensemble since it was formed.

And as much as OMM's members may be amateurs in the technical sense - they're unpaid, non-professional musicians - they're certainly neither inexperienced nor unskilled.

They have won critical acclaim both here and abroad, with Marc Rochester, a Gramophone and International Record Review music critic, stating that OMM is "guaranteed to inspire even the most jaded of critical palettes".

Just last year, the ensemble snagged invitations to perform at two respected UK music festivals in Cheltenham and Lichfield, where their rousing performances did Singapore proud.

Rather than feeling chuffed with itself, OMM is inspired by these accolades to push harder to give back to the community here. Indeed, it's hard to find an ensemble more accessible than OMM. Which other troupe would allow - much less invite - you to sit within the orchestra as its musicians rehearse?

"Our open rehearsals are rather unique because we make space between our members, and put the attendees in the orchestra," says Prof Chan, who is also the pioneering music director of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra, and a former scholar of the Royal College of Music in London.

"It's our way of reaching out to the community. We know people are fascinated with how orchestras work, and this gives us a chance to show how so many people can make beautiful music together at the same time."

OMM's fifth anniversary concert is at 7.30pm on Aug 28 at the Esplanade Concert Hall. Tickets are available from Sistic and are priced at between $12 and $50.

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