Braddell community orchestra comes of age

Conductor Adrian Tan leading the Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra in a rehearsal.
Conductor Adrian Tan leading the Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra in a rehearsal.ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

It started as a small string ensemble that would meet for practice at Braddell Heights Community Club. In the decades since then, it has grown into a full-fledged symphony orchestra and become an unexpected stalwart of Singapore's classical music scene.

The Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra turns 30 this year - and the little orchestra that could is still chugging along, banding passionate amateur instrumentalists together to bring classical music to audiences from all walks of life.

This year, it kicks off its season with a nostalgia-tinged gala concert on March 19 - a whirlwind look at some of the highlights of its past concerts.

Though the orchestra has now established itself as Singapore's longest-serving community orchestra, it was not all smooth-sailing, veteran members recall.

In its early days, it at times limped by with barely enough musicians.

Conductor emeritus Yan Yin Wing, 68, says: "Sometimes, there would be only 10 people coming for rehearsals. It was quite disappointing."

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Getting people on board was a massive grassroots effort then. It was all hands on deck: Friends of friends were called on, contacts summoned.

The effort paid off. As the music scene in Singapore took off, with more people picking up musical instruments, and the orchestra gained a following with a regular line-up of concerts, the group found its footing. Now, it is a lively sight: 80-strong, with members ranging from teenagers to retirees, working professionals and national servicemen.

Yan's wife Linda, 60, who oversees the operational aspects of the orchestra, says: "If you look back to the early days, perhaps there was a huge mountain in front of us that we couldn't see beyond. But we never thought of calling it a day because the orchestra is really driven by passion and dedication."

Members have come and gone, but there are long-standing regulars, among them principal timpani Victor Wong, 46. He joined the orchestra a year after its formation, when he was just a polytechnic student.

"My passion grew," says the project manager at a renovation company, when asked why he has stuck around. "I'm not a professional, but it gave me a platform to grow my passion. And the standard actually rose, so it got more and more interesting and kept the fire going."

The group sees itself as a tier-three orchestra, below the top-tier professional orchestras and the tier-two orchestras made up of amateurs with an eye on going professional.

Its music director and conductor Adrian Tan, 38, says: "There has to be that one orchestra that you kind of play in - that's not in your school - where you gain experience so that you get good enough to play in orchestras where you have professional aspirations. Somebody has to fill that gap and that's really where we see ourselves.

"We are more concerned about getting more people involved - which is also part and parcel of being part of the community."

A community orchestra, Mr Tan says, has to be a bridge between music and the community, reaching out to the layperson and getting people excited and involved.

In 2014, the orchestra formed the Joy Chorale to reach out to more music lovers, as "it's a whole lot easier to sing than to play an instrument", he says. The community choir will hold its inaugural concert on April 3.

The orchestra has also played a role in nurturing budding talents. In 1997, it launched its Singapore's Gifted Young Musicians concert series to showcase young talents in the music scene.

This year, it has made two key appointments: Violinist Yew Shan will serve as its concertmaster, while rising star Moses Gay, who is assistant conductor of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, comes on board as principal guest conductor.

Yew, 45, says of the orchestra's members: "What strikes me most is the love for music that keeps them coming back. They're working professionals, have other commitments, but the joy of music brings them back week after week. That's precious."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 02, 2016, with the headline 'Braddell community orchestra comes of age'. Print Edition | Subscribe