THE L!FE INTERVIEW WITH LOH JUN HONG

Loh Jun Hong, one of Singapore's top violinists, stays on a high note

Loh with Natalia Boyarsky, who teaches at the Royal College of Music and The Yehudi Menuhin School, at the festival Civica Scuila di Musica, Recanati, in Italy in 2008. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF LOH JUN HONG
Loh with Natalia Boyarsky, who teaches at the Royal College of Music and The Yehudi Menuhin School, at the festival Civica Scuila di Musica, Recanati, in Italy in 2008. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF LOH JUN HONG
Loh Jun Hong with his parents, Mr Loh Lean Chooi and Madam Lim Ben Tjoe, and former President S R Nathan and his wife in 2001 at an Istana dinner for Heads of Missions where he performed. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF LOH JUN HONG
Loh Jun Hong with his parents, Mr Loh Lean Chooi and Madam Lim Ben Tjoe, and former President S R Nathan and his wife in 2001 at an Istana dinner for Heads of Missions where he performed. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF LOH JUN HONG
It has been a long-standing dream for Loh Jun Hong to connect with his audiences through music. -- PHOTO: MIKE LEE FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
It has been a long-standing dream for Loh Jun Hong to connect with his audiences through music. -- PHOTO: MIKE LEE FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Violinist Loh Jun Hong remains upbeat although a few of his grand plans have been crushed

When Loh Jun Hong did not make the cut for the finals of the inaugural Singapore International Violin Competition in January this year, he was stunned.

Never mind that he was going bow- to-bow against the best in the world or that he was already the only Singaporean among the dozen semi-finalists.For Loh, it was just not good enough. "I wouldn't say that it was disappointment, as much as shock. I just didn't think that it was possible," says the 24-year-old.

Coming from anyone else, such a strong statement might reek of hubris. But when Loh says it, he sounds simply bewildered.

Perched on the edge of a cream sofa in his parents' semi-detached house just off Bukit Timah Road, he furrows his brow. "I was confident I was going to get in. I was practising for the next round already. I was getting a quartet together to read the concerto with me," he says.

In Loh's case, such conviction is well warranted. As one of Singapore's top violinists, his glowing reviews and lengthy list of achievements are unparalleled by anyone in his generation.

The "About" section of his website is packed with accolades:Multiple top finishes in the National Arts Council's biennial National Piano & Violin Competition. A master's of music from Juilliard. Concertmaster at the renowned Verbier Festival in Switzerland. Multiple guest appearances with various orchestras and top finishes in international competitions.

At an age when most of his peers are fresh out of university or learning the ropes at work, the fleet-fingered violinist is already over a decade into his professional career as a performer.

He has certainly come a long way from the kid for whom music was just another avenue to excel.

The Nanyang Primary School alumni, who was accepted into Raffles Institution with a Primary School Leaving Examination score of 275, confesses that he was never one of those children who "just knew that they had to do music" at a young age.

Rather, he was simply a very competitive child all-round.

He began learning the violin relatively late - at the age of seven - because his only sibling, sister Ling Min, 30, had started on the piano and his parents thought that it would be nice for them to duet.

But his desire to do well in everything soon saw him racing well ahead of his peers. "My music teacher used to say I would want to play only the difficult and fast pieces to impress people."

Loh, who trims the nails on his left hand once every three days, is also fastidious and attentive, traits which manifest themselves during the photo shoot for this feature.

After posing with his instrument for a few shots around the house, he pauses and races upstairs to his room when the photographer asks to shoot outdoors.

The reason? It is humid outside and he wants to switch violins - from a $300,000 1780 Mantegazza on loan from the Rin collection to a less expensive instrument. The private Rin collection of more than 300 rare stringed instruments is owned by Singaporean businessman Rin Kei Mei.

His mother, Madam Lim Ben Tjoe, 60, says Loh was extremely disciplined as a child. "Even as a kid, Jun Hong was very careful and he worked very hard. He liked to perform and when he learnt something, he would want to show and play for the whole family," she says.

She used to spend afternoons with him as a child when she was not helping her husband Loh Lean Chooi, 61, with the family's construction business.

However, Loh's studious, focused character also saw him speed through childhood with nary a breather. Madam Lim reflects: "As a mother, I felt he grew up too early and that he matured too fast. He never had much time to play. He spent all his time practising."

Loh's hours of diligent practice saw him become the youngest Singaporean to be admitted to the National University of Singapore when he won a place at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music at 15.

That record, however, was soon felled by pianist Abigail Sin, when she entered the year after at 14.

The two, who were often hailed as child prodigies - a label Loh seems distinctly unimpressed by - are now fast friends, bonded by a mutual respect for each other's craft and what Loh calls "a little bitchy gossip thing" going on.

Their professional paths have crossed many times over the years at concerts such as ChildAid. The pair will also play at a concert with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra next month.

Together, they are the creators of More Than Music, a concert series which aims to demystify classical music and break down the barriers between musicians and the audience.

Sin, 22, who is studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London, says Loh is "a sincere musician who aims to milk every ounce of expression in the music".

As a friend, he is equally open with his emotions. "I've known him for a while now and I think we're quite frank with each other. He wears his heart on his sleeve," says Sin.

With so many projects together, have there ever been any romantic sparks? "Let's just not go there," the bachelor is quick to say, bursting into laughter - a rare sight during the interview.

He has been single since a heartbreak two years ago while at Juilliard, which he calls the "biggest upset of my life". "That was the only time I composed and I never compose," he says, adding in jest that such experiences helped him get over the pain of being booted from the violin competition earlier this year.

Although Loh is unfailingly affable and warm, he is also serious for one so young.

When he talks about his craft and plans, it is plain to see he has clear goals to work towards and that everything else is mere distraction.

This laser-like ambition is why he turned down a full doctoral scholarship at Juilliard to come back to Singapore in 2013, despite New York having a more established classical music scene.

"Singapore is such an exciting place for the arts now, there's never been more support and interest. And I want to be part of that change."

Wanting to contribute to the local music scene has been a long-standing dream for Loh. In an interview with The Straits Times in 2005, after being admitted to The Yehudi Menuhin School in England, a place which he eventually turned down, the then 14-year-old Loh said: "I'm very excited about being exposed to a music circle that is bigger and more established than the one in Singapore.

"Hopefully, that will drive me to greater heights so I can contribute more to Singapore's music scene."

With Loh's impressive credentials and his steady confidence, it is sometimes easy to forget that he is barely in his mid-20s. With a boyish, infectious smile, the 1.8m-tall Loh cuts a striking figure on stage and banters easily with audiences.

Freelance classical music reviewer Chang Tou Liang wrote in Life! of Loh's last More Than Music concert last year: "Immediately one was struck by Jun Hong's easy and natural way with the violin, where the passage of melody and intonation come as freely and spontaneously as breathing."

During interviews, it is also clear that his responses are thoughtfully crafted. He makes references to psychological studies and puts forth meaningful analogies to illustrate his point.

However, despite being put through the media rigmarole since a young age, there is still a vulnerability and an openness to him. Curling his frame into a corner of the sofa, he absently picks up a cushion and hugs it to his chest. He falls easily into deep thought, silently searching for words when a term eludes him.

He is an idealist, which is why he was sorely disappointed when he returned to Singapore from Juilliard with grand plans and little in the way of practicalities.

One of his hopes was to have longer running classical concerts here, instead of the current norm, where they run for days at most. "On Broadway, they can hold the same production for 30 nights in a row and I was thinking, why can't we do the same? I felt it was because the experience was not good enough. I thought if the experience was good enough, then people would want to come every night for 30 nights.

"But when I came back, I realised the difficulties in doing something like this. It's a chicken-and-egg problem."

He cites the lack of a strong concert- going culture here and the difficulty of finding local musicians of a high enough standard as some obstacles.

Another shock he faced was a difference in the culture of patronage, which is stronger in America and Europe. He says that in places such as Switzerland, where the Verbier Festival is staged, patronage is commonplace, but in Singapore, he faces multiple rejections when approaching sponsors.

"When I first came back with the idea of More Than Music, I thought people would love it. I thought it was enough for sponsors to love the idea and to help me make this flourish here," he says. "But I thought wrong. Here, sponsorship is based much more on reach and how many people you can affect."

While he admits that he was "a lot more idealistic when I first came back", he still maintains an upbeat attitude. "I'm still idealistic in the end goal, but I'm now realistic in the problems that we'll face to get there," he says with a smile.

Now, he makes a livelihood from teaching at places such as the School of the Arts and the Singapore Youth Orchestra and giving private lessons.

While his immediate plans for the music scene may have to be shelved, he is now concentrating on doing what he does best - connecting with audiences.

"I would compare going to a performance with going to a restaurant. The chef will think that all that matters is the quality of the food and we have the same failure in art as well, where the artist thinks that all that matters is the quality of the music," he muses. "But everything else is important as well - the atmosphere, company, service staff - it's the full experience. And that's what we're trying to cultivate at More Than Music."

The series takes classical music out of intimidating concert halls and roots it in a more intimate setting. Loh and Sin crack jokes, address the audience directly and introduce the pieces that they play.

This desire to connect with audiences stems from his national service days in the Music and Drama Company, where they played at dinners and outdoor concerts. "The biggest reason it became such a chore to us was that there was almost zero appreciation for what we were doing. We were like background music."

And that is something Loh hopes to change. "It's about helping audiences hear what we hear, so they can love what we love," he says. "When I was younger, I would get comments like 'Oh, you play really well' or 'You're a great violinist'.

"But nowadays, the comment that makes me happiest is 'I really enjoyed my evening tonight' and that it was an experience that they'll remember."

lting@sph.com.sg