The Life Interview

Margaret Chen, Grande Dame of Singapore's organ scene

Margaret Chen, who helped put together two of Singapore's grandest organs, is a passionate champion of the instrument

People react to organist Margaret Chen's choice of musical instrument with raised eyebrows and disbelief.

She is 1.6m tall, dimpled and brimming with energy and easy laughter. The stately pipe organ - with its rows of towering pipes and its almost forbidding aura - seems quite her opposite.

"People are always wondering why I play the organ. But in a way, the organ is just like me, so loud it can fill an entire hall," she says. "Because I'm very short, I like to make a lot of noise. And the best thing to make a lot of noise with is the organ."

A full-bodied fit of laughter takes hold of her.

Dr Chen turns 65 in September and still hurtles through life with good cheer and vigour, charming people with her breezy banter and infectious humour.

This is the woman known as the Grande Dame of Singapore's organ scene: a passionate champion of the instrument and a firm believer in making music part of people's lives.

The organ is grand and majestic, filling a hall with wonderful, colourful and thrilling sounds. When I accompany choirs or play with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, I have a whole battery of sounds under my hands and feet. The organ has as much power as a full symphony, but can also make the softest, most quiet whispers. ''

DR MARGARET CHEN on why she loves the organ

She has travelled the world, playing in prime spots such as Japan's Suntory Hall and the magnificent Cologne Cathedral in Germany, and headed programmes in Singapore to bring music to the public and the young, in particular.

  • WATCH IT /VCH ORGAN SERIES: GUEST VOCALISTS & MARGARET CHEN "ON BROADWAY"

  • WHERE: Victoria Concert Hall, 9 Empress Place

    WHEN: March 7, 12.30pm

    ADMISSION: Free

She also had a hand in putting together two of the country's grandest organs: one at the Victoria Concert Hall and another at the Esplanade.

But her lifelong love for music started with the piano. She picked it up at the age of three before moving on to the organ at 13.

"Our church decided to buy an electronic organ and asked who wanted to learn. And the thing about me is, I'm always the first one to volunteer," she says.

"I always want to be the first one to try and I always want to be challenged with something new. So I was like, 'Wow. This is going to be really cool.'"

She took to it with her typical steely determination, pouring hours into practice, arms and legs windmilling as she got herself used to navigating the keyboard and pedals.

More than five decades later and she is still at it.

But, she confesses, it can be a painfully lonely affair and, with long nights in dark halls and churches, sometimes scary too.

When she played at Cologne Cathedral in 2003, she would practise alone in the choir loft from 10pm to 2am and take the lift down when done. One night, she took it to the wrong floor.

"It was the crypt. It was two in the morning. The lift doors opened and the first thing I see is this coffin and there's a statue of a bishop standing over it. Argh," she mimes a shriek.

"Can die. I ran the fastest I've ever run. A taxi stopped and took me back to my hotel without charging me. I looked that traumatised."

With long hours in isolation, she sometimes wonders if she has picked the wrong instrument.

"I'm a people person, but here I am playing something so contrary to my personality. Maybe I would have liked to play the cello or oboe and be with an orchestra," she says.

"But I wouldn't give the organ up. There's something about it. The sound echoes through the concert hall, through your body. That excitement is something I love even now."

Dr Chen was born in Manila in 1951, the second of five children.

It was not the most musical of families. Three of her four siblings would go on to work in the banking industry. Her father, who died in 2008, owned and managed a factory, while her mother - trained as a pharmacist in university - took on the role of full-time housewife after marriage.

Instrument for outreach

But Dr Chen's parents have always been her avid supporters.

Her mother was always interested in music, singing actively in choirs and even now, at 89, going for voice lessons. Although her father was a "typical Chinese businessman - you know the type", he never tried to stop her musical ambition.

"He'd joke that if nobody came for my concerts, I could call him and he'd stand outside and hand $10 bills to people so maybe they would come and hear me," she says.

When she told him she had her heart set on pursuing music in university, he took it upon himself to scope out three of her picks while on a business trip in the United States: Juilliard School in New York City, New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and Indiana University in Bloomington.

Juilliard was struck off as it had no dormitories back then and he found the neighbourhood unsafe. New England, meanwhile, was too frosty the day he stopped by.

"He told me, 'No, no, no, no, it snows all the time here.' And then he went to Bloomington, Indiana. This very small town, very ulu," she says, referring to the remote location of the place. "He said, yah, okay, here. Very safe, very ulu. Nowhere to go, nothing to do but practise."

Laughing, she adds: "That was his criteria."

Indiana University turned out to be the perfect place for her.

She arrived there in 1970 and stayed at the university for 10 years, getting her bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees. There, she also reconnected with - and married - a friend from her childhood: Chen Yang Chin, who was doing his MBA and, later, his doctorate.

"I loved it. My life began at Indiana University. I really learnt music there: how to play, how to think, how to write," she says. "And then in 1980, I came home to Singapore - with a husband and a baby in tow."

Her father had uprooted the family and moved to Singapore in 1971, the year after she started university. She first joined her family here during the Christmas holidays that year.

For her father - a great admirer of Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew - the country, safe and largely English-speaking, seemed an ideal new home for his family, away from anti-Chinese sentiment in the Philippines.

"I had always lived in places where we were the 'outsiders'. Where people laughed and mimicked the way we spoke. In Manila, I had never taken public transport on my own," she says.

"All of a sudden, here we were. Everybody sounded like us. Singlish was a natural fit. I was practising at St Andrew's Cathedral at all hours of the day and night. Making my own way around the city. My home in this little red dot is the greatest gift my father has given me."

Back in Singapore with her husband, who is now 68 and a businessman, and infant son in the 1980s, she had another child - a daughter - and started teaching music and the organ at the Singapore Bible College, where she still works today.

Her two children are now in the US. Kevin, 36, is an associate professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, while Kirstin, 34, is an author and adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco.

Kirstin recalls fondly that her mother always planned the best birthday parties, once hiring a theatre troupe to put on a performance of Sleeping Beauty in the living room.

"We communicate via e-mail and Skype pretty regularly, but only when there's something that needs to be said," says Kirstin. "She's busy living her life and her life is bigger than just her kids. I appreciate and admire her for that."

Dr Chen - who loves discovering new places - is an active globe- trotter. In the last six months, she and her husband have stopped by Stockholm and Copenhagen, and spent time in Athens and Nafplio in Greece.

And when not at the organ, she turns to books. Lately, she has been devouring audiobooks and has also been re-reading the works of espionage master John le Carre, which she loved reading during her time at university, but "did not have the time to savour".

She has over the years been busy making her mark in the music scene.

In 1983, Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) founder Choo Hoey roped her into a massive project to build a new organ for the Victoria Concert Hall. The building's chequered past - it was a makeshift hospital in the early stages of World War II and a venue for war crime trials after the war ended - had left the old St Clair organ in shambles.

"I remember going inside the organ with a torchlight. There were big rats scuttling around. It was completely filthy. Pipes were missing. The wood, this really nice teak, was gone. Things were rotting," she recalls. "And the chambers were in disrepair so when you looked up, you could see the sky. And water was just dripping in."

The SSO raised close to $1 million for the project.

In 1985, Dr Chen took a trip to visit family-run organ company Klais in Bonn, Germany, on her own dime for a crash course on organ-building. There, she spent about a week tailing Hans Gerd Klais - the grandson of the company's founder - learning as much as she could, from how pipes were cast to the kinds of wood to choose.

In 1987, about 2,000 pipes arrived at the concert hall - the longest pieces more than 4m tall. Dr Chen would drop by after work each day as the organ slowly came together over a few months.

"It was like a dream come true. Here's this beautiful pipe organ. I couldn't believe I had the chance to help design it," she says.

The Victoria Concert Hall organ was her firstborn. But in the years to come, she oversaw the installation of a number of other organs, including one at the Esplanade and the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas in Kuala Lumpur.

Music education is also an enduring passion of hers.

She and her friend Joseph Lee, assistant professor at the Singapore Bible College, started the SSO Ladies' League music education programme in 1992.

He says: "Margaret isn't afraid to dream big. Her plans for music have always been daring and brave."

Dr Chen, for instance, headed to Baltimore back in the 1990s to learn more about music outreach efforts.

"I was shadowing musicians who would go to a primary school and, every time I went there, I had to go through metal detectors. They have those there to make sure no one is bringing guns and knives in - and it's a primary school. Can you imagine?"

She is now director of the VCH Organ Series, a line-up of free shows that run the gamut of music styles, to get more people interested "not just in the organ, but also in good music".

The upcoming show on March 7 will see her and some guest vocalists take on Broadway hits, including songs from the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein musical The King And I.

Interest in the organ has been dwindling in recent years, says Dr Chen - possibly due to changes in church culture.

"Now, churches are doing pop stuff, using electric pianos, guitars, drum sets, not so much the organ. So we have to get people interested in the organ not just as an instrument in church, but as a musical instrument in its own right," she says.

"It's almost a one-man orchestra. We have to help people see the appeal of it. And it has its appeal. It's this giant, majestic instrument. You just have to give it a chance."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2016, with the headline 'A big heart for organ'. Print Edition | Subscribe