Maestro Shui Lan's career almost derailed after cycling accident

The China-born Shui Lan (above) has helped groom young conductors.
The China-born Shui Lan (above) has helped groom young conductors.PHOTO: SINGAPORE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

Singapore Symphony Orchestra conductor Shui Lan nearly became a vegetable after a cycling accident

Conductor Shui Lan has taken the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) from an established local ensemble to a brand applauded internationally, such as on this May's tour of Europe and a televised performance at the 2014 BBC Proms.

To mark his 20 years helming the orchestra, the SSO will, in October, December and next January, replay the programme of his first three concerts here, including the two before he became music director in January 1997.

But Shui's first year holding the baton was almost his last. Invited to conduct at the well-known Aspen Music Festival in Aspen, Colorado, the avid cyclist went too fast downhill during a mountain bike ride there, braked and flipped over.

Post-rehearsals at the Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay for Friday's Shakespeare-themed concert (Prokofiev's Romeo And Juliet, Chopin's First Piano Concerto), he invites this writer to feel the metal screw below his left eyelid. It is a remnant of surgery after he awoke in hospital in 1997, fighting to remember the notes of Mahler's First Symphony.

"I nearly became a vegetable," says the Chinese-American conductor, who turns 59 this year and is a Singapore permanent resident. "I cycle only on roads now. The more boring bike rides."

Drama punctuates his life.

  • BOOK IT / SHAKESPEARE400: ROMEO AND JULIET/ CHOPIN PIANO CONCERTO NO. 1

  • WHERE: Esplanade Concert Hall, 1 Esplanade Drive

    WHEN: Friday, 7.30pm

    ADMISSION: $28 to $78 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

    INFO: For details of the Lan Shui 20th SSO Season, concerts in October, December and next January, go to www.sso.org.sg

Born in Hangzhou in 1957 to a banker and a doctor, he took up the violin at age five, but had to stop when the Cultural Revolution closed music schools and drove his teacher to suicide.

At age 13, he moved to Beijing to join the People's Liberation Army Song and Dance Troupe, a school for musical talent that enjoyed the protection of Mao Zedong.

A football accident stopped his violin studies. He trained instead in conducting and composition at the Beijing Central Conservatory of Music and became conductor of the Beijing Symphony Orchestra in 1985. His peers include acclaimed composers Bright Sheng and Tan Dun - their work is naturally on the SSO repertoire.

In 1986, he received a scholarship to study at Boston University's Tanglewood Institute. Here, he trained with the late, great Leonard Bernstein. After graduation, David Zinman gave Shui a conducting stint with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Other influences include Kurt Masur at the New York Philharmonic and Pierre Boulez at the Cleveland Orchestra.

He was associate conductor at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra with the Estonia-born maestro Neeme Jarvi, when the SSO's founding conductor Choo Hoey invited him to Singapore in 1993.

"I never felt at home in the US and when I went back from the US to China, I didn't feel at home anymore. Singapore was the place I felt at home. It has a lot of Western influence and a lot of Asian diversity."

And there was the orchestra. "I felt a great spirit when we played together."

When he took over from Choo, audience trust in the ensemble was low. Shui remembers: "I had conducted everywhere, I knew even then we were a good regional orchestra. But people would rather go see a German orchestra, even a third-rate one, rather than the SSO. I told myself this must change."

What was needed? "Hard work," he says. Also, building a team of musicians, who took ownership of the orchestra.

Today, a musicians' committee gives ideas on scheduling, programming and marketing.

Shui is also not a "my way or the highway" figure at rehearsals. "But I'm also not Mr Nice Man," he says, laughing.

SSO concerts are 85 per cent sold out and its free open-air concerts at the Botanic Gardens attract up to 8,000 people at a time.

Top-notch soloists arrive regularly to perform with the orchestra, including Chinese pianist Lang Lang or Russia-born violinist Igor Yuzefovich. Finnish conductor Okko Kamu of the internationally known Sibelius Festival is SSO's principal guest conductor.

Swiss maestro Charles Dutoit took the baton in January this year while Russia-born maestros Vladimir Ashkenazy and Gennady Rozhdestvensky are repeat visitors.

In 2012, Jarvi cancelled one of four rehearsals before his appearance with the SSO because he was so happy with the "good quality of musicians".

From the start, Shui has brought in guest conductors of high standard and excellent soloists, according to violinist Lynnette Seah, 58. This, in turn, pushes the orchestra to excel. "Conductors are the ones who motivate us to play better," she says.

One of Choo's first recruits, she joined the SSO at age 21. Today, she is its co-concertmaster.

Ask Shui about his plans for the future, he says: "To slow down."

Since 1998, he has recorded more than 20 well-received CDs for Swedish music label BIS, including the first complete cycle of Tcherepnin's symphonies with the SSO.

Last month, his second child, a boy, was born to his new bride, a Chinese-American vocalist. He also has an 11-year-old son from his first marriage to an Icelandic cellist and moves between Singapore and Copenhagen to be with his family. He is chief conductor of the Copenhagen Philharmonic.

"The SSO is now very comfortable, very mature," he says. It is time for the former underdog to champion under-recognised talent.

Under his baton, the SSO has helped groom young conductors such as Darrell Ang, 36, whose recording with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra received a Grammy nomination last year for best orchestral performance; and Wong Kah Chun, 29, who recently became the first Asian to win the prestigious Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition.

SSO is also doing more for Singaporean composers. It played work by Chen Zhangyi during its tour in May of European cities including Berlin and Prague.

"We want to see more Singaporean composers," Shui says. "There are very good composers, they could be on the level of composers brought in from overseas, but their name is not built yet in Singapore."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 12, 2016, with the headline 'Maestro's career almost derailed'. Print Edition | Subscribe