From ionisers to digital concert halls, Singapore orchestras adapt to the Covid-19 normal

The Singapore Chinese Orchestra staged their first wind concert in months on Sept 25, 2021. PHOTO: SINGAPORE CHINESE ORCHESTRA

SINGAPORE - The air was charged with more than just emotion when the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO) staged its first wind concert in months last Saturday (Sept 25).

As the rousing sounds of the dizi, sheng and suona filled the concert hall, high-tech devices attached to 20 ornamental snake plants in front of the stage created an "ionising curtain" between the performers and audience.

The ionisers, designed to reduce the spread of Covid-19, induce a negative charge in the air particles around the plants. This pulls positively charged aerosols, droplets and particulate matter towards the leaves of the plants.

The devices were introduced following a six-month collaboration between the orchestra and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star).

SCO's executive director Terence Ho hopes these - and a slew of other measures, such as a filter-less high-volume air purifier developed by A*Star to be used in the foyer - will give people peace of mind and encourage them to attend live concerts.

"We have to work towards bringing audiences back to the hall and more musicians back on stage," he tells The Straits Times, adding that the plant-based ionisers will remain for future concerts at Singapore Conference Hall, home to the SCO.

Since the pandemic, orchestras in Singapore have had to reckon with capacity restrictions. Currently, up to 50 performers and crew members are allowed on stage and backstage, of which 20 performers may be unmasked at any time. Before Aug 10, live performances involving singing and playing of wind and brass instruments were suspended.

SCO's suona and guan principal Jin Shiyi, 56, says in Mandarin: "Wind players are now a 'high-risk' occupation and we have had fewer opportunities to go on stage. I'm so happy we can perform on stage again."

Last Saturday's wind concert, also available online for streaming, was part of the recently concluded Singapore Chinese Music Festival. It had drawn a physical audience of about 100 people, less than half the permitted capacity of 250 for that venue.

Mr Ho says audiences are worried about the recent spike in Covid-19 cases and ticket sales for most concerts have been slow.

For now, he is keeping his fingers crossed as the orchestra prepares for two concerts in early October to celebrate the SCO's 25th anniversary, while taking precautions to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission. It has split performers into separate "teams", cut down on rehearsals and roped in understudies in case performers are hit by the virus or with a 10-day quarantine order.

Meanwhile, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) this month launched a digital concert hall called SSOLounge, where people pay for a 12-month pass ($30) that will grant them access to new releases and archival material.

Chief executive Chng Hak-Peng says: "It is our attempt to see if we can attract a subscription model, instead of what we've been doing the past year, which is on a concert-by-concert basis."

Ionisers attached to ornamental snake plants in front of the stage created an "ionising curtain" between the performers and audience at a Singapore Chinese Orchestra concert. PHOTO: SINGAPORE CHINESE ORCHESTRA

The orchestra would have launched it even without the pandemic, he adds, as a way to maintain ties with local and overseas audiences. Before the pandemic, as many as 10 per cent of SSO's live audience members were tourists.

Home-grown charity The Foundation For The Arts And Social Enterprise has also launched a 10-year Music Commissioning Series to support Singapore composers and build up a canon of local contemporary music - from Chinese orchestra and cross-cultural works to jazz and musicals.

The series aims to commission one composer a year over a decade, starting with Cultural Medallion recipient Kelly Tang. Each work will have a patron.

Founder Michael Tay says: "While we have had Singapore composers write works for wind bands and orchestras in the past, we don't see a systematic plan to encourage the writing of major works (of at least 30 minutes)." The series, he adds, "is meant to plug this gap".

Tang, 59, is working on a full-scale orchestral suite inspired by the art of Chua Mia Tee, Simryn Gill, Eng Tow, Han Sai Por and Sarkasi Said in the National Gallery Singapore's collection. It will be performed by the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra and premiere at the Esplanade Concert Hall by early 2023.

"For several years, I've thought about how to combine music with visual art, as both art forms share many concepts in common," Tang says. "I'm grateful the series has made it possible to realise this collaboration between music and art."

Cultural Medallion recipient Kelly Tang is working on a full-scale orchestral suite. THE FOUNDATION

Mr Tay says the foundation hopes to engage with all of Singapore's orchestras. "We want our Singapore composers and their music to be embedded within our communities, and that can be achieved only if our orchestras support our composers by performing their works regularly."

Despite the resumption of live concerts - SSO, for instance, did so last November - life has not returned to normal for orchestras.

While live performances with up to 1,000 audience members, subject to conditions, are allowed, most venues can accommodate only a fraction of this after factoring in safe distancing measures.


"The Victoria Concert Hall has 673 seats. With two seats in between, and alternate rows, we can fill 200, maximum 216," says Mr Chng. "At the Esplanade, there are 1,800 seats available. We can fill only 440... It doesn't increase our revenue by a lot."

He adds: "Even though we are having concerts, we still have not, for the last year and a half, been able to have our entire orchestra perform together."

Then there is the impact on freelancers, who in pre-pandemic times would often perform with the orchestra and give pre-concert talks. Right now, because of restrictions on numbers, those freelancers are mainly the filming crew.

Mr Chng adds. "Our music freelancers are still struggling and we feel very limited in our ability to help this group."

Countertenor and freelance choral director and educator Phua Ee Kia, 41, had no income for eight months last year and has not performed since 2019. He has been doing his rehearsals online during the pandemic.

"Conductors are really struggling, he says. "Not all of us are tech-savvy and we don't just have to cope with our own (issues), but also have to deal with situations when our students say, 'I can't hear you very well' or 'My screen went blank'."

Phua, who tapped a training grant to take a course in audio production software Logic Pro, hopes there will be more upskilling opportunities and financial support for freelancers.

As Singapore transitions towards living with endemic Covid-19,musicians hope restrictions will be eased further.


SSO trumpeter Lau Wen Rong, 31, who last performed in a live concert in May and returns to the stage for an SSO concert next month (October), says: "When we perform on stage, we have to be about 2m apart, so we can't really hear each other very well, and it's difficult to adjust our intonation and articulation."

Lau, who spent the past few months running classes on Zoom, cannot wait to be perform larger orchestral works like Mahler and Bruckner symphonies again.

Phua says: "A choir is not formed of just five people. I hope in the near future, we are allowed to gather and sing in a bigger group, albeit with masks on. Some of us are forgetting what it's like to be able to perform in a bigger group."

SSO's Mr Chng adds: "I feel we are ready for a resumption of pre-pandemic numbers on stage, even with wind and brass players and singers, if everybody is vaccinated and tested on performance day - as we are now.

"The symphony orchestra as a performing entity and the size that it's reached - of about 100 people on stage - has been with us for 100 years or so. And it's not grown or shrunk from this size, because the combination of instruments and that number of performers on stage give that emotional power... and allows for the human soul to be spoken to through music."

Line-up of orchestra concerts in October

Music Unmasked: Symphony for Winds, Brass, and Percussion

The Orchestra of the Music Makers returns to the stage with Nigel Shore's Harmoniemusik version of Richard Strauss' opera Der Rosenkavalier, conducted by Seow Yibin. Singapore composer Lee Jinjun's symphony The Times Have Changed will also premiere at the concert under the baton of Chan Tze Law.

Where: Esplanade Concert Hall, Esplanade -Theatres on the Bay, 1 Esplanade Drive
When: Oct 1, 7.30pm
Admission: From $15
Info: Sistic website

SCO25 Our Shared Memories: The SCO Yesteryear

Highlights range from erhu and dizi concertos, to a pre-recorded chamber choir performance which will be presented on stage with a live orchestra.

Where: SCO Concert Hall, Singapore Conference Hall, 7 Shenton Way
When: Oct 2, 8pm (in-venue); Oct 2, 8pm, to Oct 10, 8pm (digital concert)
Admission: $25 (in-venue); $15 (digital concert)
Info: Sistic website

Steinway Artist Joja Wendt - STARS ON 88

German piano virtuoso Joja Wendt's eclectic programme features bold interpretations of pop songs and classical music.

Where: The Star Theatre, The Star Performing Arts Centre, 1 Vista Exchange Green
When: Oct 3, 6.30pm
Admission: $80 for adults
Info: Startix website

SCO25 Dazzling Rhapsodies

This gala concert stars concertmaster Li Baoshun in the gaohu concerto The Legend Of The Merlion; and pipa principal Yu Jia in Spring and Autumn.

Where: SCO Concert Hall, Singapore Conference Hall, 7 Shenton Way
When: Oct 9, 8pm (in-venue); Oct 9, 8pm, to Oct 17, 8pm (digital concert)
Admission: $25 (in-venue); $15 (digital concert)
Info: Sistic website

Sayaka Shoji - Spirit of the Violin

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra and acclaimed Japanese violinist Sayaka Shoji will present a programme of pieces by Bruckner, Schumann and Schubert.

Where: Esplanade Concert Hall, Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay, 1 Esplanade Drive
When: Oct 14 and 15, 7.30pm
Admission: From $28
Info: Singapore Symphony Orchestra website

Symphonic Fantasies - Kate Liu Plays Mozart

Singapore-born pianist Kate Liu makes her local debut in this concert presented by Altenburg Arts and the Orchestra of the Music Makers. The programme includes pieces by Stravinsky, Mozart and Weill.

Where: Esplanade Concert Hall, Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay, 1 Esplanade Drive
When: Oct 16, 7.30pm
Admission: From $18
Info: Sistic website

VCHpresents Chamber: From My Life

In this programme featuring music by Beethoven, Bruch and Smetana, the composers' tales are woven into their scores.

Where: Victoria Concert Hall, 9 Empress Place
When: Oct 16, 7pm; Oct 17, 4pm
Admission: From $20
Info: Singapore Symphony Orchestra website

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