Cellist Theophilus Tan wins prestigious Goh Soon Tioe Centenary Award award

Theophilus Tan's dream is to perform at the Esplanade with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.
Theophilus Tan's dream is to perform at the Esplanade with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.PHOTO: COURTESY OF THEOPHILUS TAN

Theophilus Tan is the first cellist to clinch the Centenary Award since it was established in 2011

Cellist Theophilus Tan started piano lessons at the age of seven but was never very enthusiastic about classical music.

But through a combination of emotional support from his secondary school teacher mother, strict discipline from his pastor father and from listening to his father's collection of CDs by Russian violinist Jascha Heifetz, he fell in love with classical music.

He also picked up the cello when he was 15 and decided he wanted to study music.

Now 25, he has been named winner of this year's Goh Soon Tioe Centenary Award and the first cellist to clinch the accolade since it was established in 2011 .

The annual award, which honours the late pioneer violinist and conductor, is worth $7,000 this year. It is given to a young string player who has shown a consistent track record of outstanding musicianship and performance.

Tan was picked as the winner after an audition and interview in June, conducted by a panel of four judges who were Goh's former students. They included his daughters Vivien and Sylvia.

Past winners include vio- linists Helena Dawn Yah and Alan Choo, and double bassist Julian Li.

Ms Vivien Goh, 67, says: "This year, we shortlisted seven applicants, but Theophilus stood out with a convincing performance and he had concrete plans for the future, which we wanted to support."

As is the tradition for the winners, he will give a recital at the National University of Singapore's Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, where he graduated from this year.

Tan, who played three pieces for the audition, picked up the cello in Temasek Secondary School.

He got to know his first cello teacher, Mrs Herminia A Ilano, now 77, as they both attended Paya Lebar Methodist Church.

She taught him for about four years, seeing him through the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music grade 8 and Associate Trinity College London cello exams before he enlisted for national service.

She also helped him prepare for his audition for enrolment in the conservatory, where he was later awarded a scholarship.

She says: "He has always been a perceptive and diligent student. Once, he learnt an entire concerto a few grades above his level and played it beautifully. I'm proud his perseverance has led him so far, to win this award."

Tan is humble about his achievement, saying he did not expect to win.

"I was glad for the opportunity to perform for Ms Vivien Goh and the rest of the judging panel," he says.

He lives with his mother and two younger sisters in a five-room HDB flat in Pasir Ris. His father died of stomach cancer 10 years ago. No one else in the family plays a musical instrument.

Tan's eyes light up whenever he talks about playing the cello.

"It's very different from playing the violin, mostly because the cello can play much lower notes than the violin can," he says. "It's almost like a human voice, and with age and maturity, its sound even changes to become richer and deeper."

He practises six to eight hours a day. "When I was younger, I'd get a caning from my father if I refused to practise the piano, but I'm practising the cello now because I enjoy it so much," he says.

He plays an 1860 Honore Derazey cello on loan from the conservatory. One of his greatest inspirations is the late Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, often considered to be one of the 20th century's greatest cellists.

"He lived through some of the toughest times in the Soviet era and still managed to do what he was passionate about. He's a true hero to me," Tan says.

At the conservatory, he came under the tutelage of Ng Pei Sian, Singapore Symphony Orchestra's (SSO) principal cellist. Next month, he will further his studies with cellist Ivan Monighetti, Rostropovich's last student and a professor at the Richard Wagner Konservatorium in Vienna, where Tan will study for two years.

He says: "I've been to Holland and Switzerland for three-week summer programmes, but I haven't really prepared for my trip to Vienna yet."

He hopes to make a career out of music.

"It's inevitable that all musicians will have to end up teaching and playing gigs like weddings to supplement their income," he says. "But one thing I'd really like to do is form a quartet, like the T'ang Quartet, and play classical music professionally and out of passion for it."

He says it would be a dream come true for him to perform at the Esplanade.

"It's the one place I've always wanted to play at. And if I can do that with the SSO, I'd be overjoyed."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2015, with the headline 'Cellist wins Goh Soon Tioe Award'. Print Edition | Subscribe