SSO music director Shui Lan to step down in two years

Lan Shui, Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) music director and conductor.
Lan Shui, Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) music director and conductor.PHOTO: SINGAPORE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

Conductor Shui Lan, who has taken the Singapore Symphony Orchestra to new heights during his 20 years as music director, announced on Jan 11 that he would step down in January 2019 after the orchestra's 40th anniversary.

The China-born Singapore permanent resident, who turns 60 this year, said he wants to spend more time with his wife and two sons, aged 11 and eight months.

Shui made a personal announcement to the orchestra during rehearsals for Friday's near-sold-out Beethoven Gala concert. Packed halls are among the positive changes attributed to him.

Under his baton, the SSO has gone from a promising national ensemble to an internationally acclaimed orchestra. The orchestra's televised BBC Proms debut in 2014 received four out of five stars in the Guardian and The Telegraph newspapers. It was hailed as possibly "one of the great orchestras of the 21st century" by the London Spectator after a 2010 performance at London's Royal Festival Hall.

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

Big-name musicians feature regularly on the programme. This month alone, it was led and praised by legendary Swiss maestro Charles Dutoit and Los Angeles-based superstar Gustavo Dudamel.

Shui he feels he has taken the orchestra as far as he can. It is time for him to move on, he told The Straits Times, for the sake of both his "families" - his children and the SSO.

"I always see myself as a transition. I took over from maestro Choo Hoey and one day I would transfer the baton," he said."I was the luckiest person to work with this orchestra for such a long time but one person can only give so much."

Shui 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. He took over as music director in January 1997.

He has been divesting himself of orchestral titles in order to spend more time with his wife, a Chinese-American vocalist, and his two children. His second child, a boy, was born in June last year. He also has an 11-year-old son from his first marriage to an Icelandic cellist and travels between Singapore and Copenhagen to be with his family.

He was chief conductor of the Copenhagen Philharmonic from 2007 to 2015, and recently concluded a five-year period as artistic advisor of the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra. Long overseas stints have been rough for the devoted father. "If I can't see my family for three weeks, I'm upset," he says.

The SSO title is the last he will give up though the orchestra foresees him returning for regular engagements.

It will take the orchestra up to three years to find a replacement. The programme for this season is finalised, and the next is almost complete. SSO's chief executive officer Chng Hak-Peng will oversee planning after Shui steps down.

The orchestra is run by the Singapore Symphonia Company and the chairman of the board, Mr Goh Yew Lin, said in a statement: "I am saddened by Lan's decision to leave, but I also look forward to the new possibilities that will open up as we begin the search for a worthy successor."

He added: "We owe Lan a great debt of thanks. Over the past 20 years, he has patiently built the SSO into one of Asia's finest. He knew from the start what he wanted to achieve, and he could be incredibly tenacious on matters of principle and standards; but he also remained throughout a thoughtful, caring and inspiring leader."

Shui says the SSO has a special place in his heart. "What's amazing about this orchestra is it's only 37 years of age and so well developed. Some orchestras go this way," he presses his palm down. "Not many orchestras go this way."

He mimes a plane taking off.

"That's what the next music director must continue: to develop the orchestra."

akshitan@sph.com.sg