Vanessa-Mae's Singapore-born pianist mother to perform at Marina Bay Sands

Pamela Tan Nicholson started playing the piano when she was a child and is now on a hectic world tour with her partner, Bulgarian violinist Vasko Vassilev. -- PHOTO: TRITTICO
Pamela Tan Nicholson started playing the piano when she was a child and is now on a hectic world tour with her partner, Bulgarian violinist Vasko Vassilev. -- PHOTO: TRITTICO

Singaporean pianist Pamela Tan Nicholson will be back to perform for charity after living abroad for three decades

Singapore-born violinist Vanessa-Mae is famous the world over for her unique fusion of classical and techno music, but fans may not know that her mother is also a musical talent.

Pamela Tan Nicholson, 56, a concert pianist, will be performing at Marina Bay Sands tomorrow, as part of the Toyota Classics Asia Tour 2014.

The Singaporean, who has been based in London since 1983, will be playing a mix of original works, classics from Rachmaninov and Massenet, as well as her own arrangements of cinematic music. All concert ticket proceeds will be donated to The Singapore Association for the Deaf.

Speaking to Life! over Skype from London, Nicholson, a former lawyer who has worked at top law firm Baker & McKenzie in London, is bright, cheery and unflinchingly straightforward.

She grew up in Singapore as an only child and, at age six, made her piano concert debut here. Even when young, her music talent was evident, and at 16, her music was used in the winning entry of the National Military Band Competition here.

Even though she has lived overseas for over three decades, her memories of Singapore are told in food. She rattles off her must haves - Crawford Lane Tai Hwa Pork Noodles, Chao Shan Cuisine in Beach Road for its Teochew food and Muthu's fish head curry, to name a few, before exclaiming: "I can fill the entire interview with food delights."

Music has also always been a big part of her life and in fact, it was through piano playing that she met her first husband, Vanessa-Mae's father. "I used to play as part of a piano trio at Raffles Hotel, and one day when I was due to perform, I realised that someone had moved my piano," she recounts.

The mysterious piano-mover was Mr Vorapong Vanakorn, the Thai general manager of the hotel. He had noticed Nicholson and was hoping to speak to her. She was almost 19 then and still a law student at the National University of Singapore.

After a whirlwind romance and marriage, she gave birth to her only child, Vanessa-Mae, in 1978. She and her husband separated when Vanessa-Mae was two, and she went on to marry British attorney Graham Nicholson. The family moved to England two years later, when Vanessa-Mae was four.

There, the young girl began to play the violin, and made her professional debut at age 10 at a music festival in Germany. When her daughter's musical talent began to blossom, she put aside her own career to help manage her daughter's.

"There was never a good time for me to stop my own career but, like everyone, I love my child and I did not hesitate for one minute to let Vanessa embrace the chances when they came, whether or not it was convenient for me," she says.

Under her direction, Vanessa-Mae's star began to rise. She shed the usual staid image of a classical violinist for more daring outfits and played a head-bopping blend of fusion and techno and tradition.

But when Vanessa-Mae was 21, Nicholson says she stepped down and out of her daughter's professional life. However, newspapers in Britain reported that Vanessa-Mae had fired her in hopes of regaining a regular mother-daughter bond, instead of a working relationship. The pair have had a publicly rocky relationship since then and rarely speak to each other.

Nicholson says: "I wanted her to find her own way. If she fails, she will fail on her own, and if she succeeds, she will succeed on her own.

"I felt that I was leaving her on a firm footing, in every sense of the word, and therefore she was as ready as she ever could be to take on the challenges of her own."

For Nicholson, who is separated from her English husband, life now is a hectic tour schedule with her personal and professional partner Bulgarian violin player Vasko Vassilev. Just this year, she has played in the Middle East, Spain, Madeira and Bulgaria, and for this year's Toyota Classics Asia Tour, she will be playing in Cambodia, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, apart from Singapore.

Here, she will be playing cinematic music, which she has grouped according to theme, such as love, action and the Wild West. The music will be from movies such as the Pirates Of The Caribbean series, Gladiator, Gone With The Wind and The Italian Job.

"With all due respect though to cinema, I did not think there was enough musical material in any one film to inspire my creative interest for an entire concerto," she says. "This gave me artistic freedom to express moods associated with a variety of characters and made it interesting for me both to write and to perform - and I hope that Singapore audiences will find it interesting too."

lting@sph.com.sg