Classical acts do more to attract and retain audiences

Young ensembles are working harder to innovate and draw audiences in a growing music scene

Four string musicians hoping to make a name pasted their posters in restrooms and bars. They played outside restaurants in Mohamed Sultan Road to ensure classical music reached a range of ears.

The T'ang Quartet is still going strong today, 18 years later, but it remains difficult for young ensembles to reach and retain audiences. Many have to change the formats of their concerts or add more accessible pieces to their repertoires.

If the classical music scene was deserted in the past, the calendar now is saturated with events. Check any ticketing platform here and the scene is abuzz with concerts, ranging from full-strength orchestras to specialist instrumental groups.

Four decades ago, there was only the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO). Its musicians went on to create smaller groups, such as T'ang Quartet in 1999 and re:mix in 2006.

Now there are the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra, The Philharmonic Orchestra and the Orchestra of the Music Makers, with at least 60 musicians each.

"The audience is shrinking because there are more events to go to," says violinist Ang Chek Meng from T'ang Quartet, which released its third album, Trampled Souls, last month. The music is available for streaming and download on iTunes and other platforms.

  • Upcoming showcase


    What: The Orchestra of the Music Makers presents the crowd-friendly programme it used to open the Taipei International Choral Festival last month. Elgar's The Music Makers is followed by highlights from film composer John Williams. Expect a light show with the sounds of the Star Wars theme. Where: Esplanade Concert Hall, 1 Esplanade Drive When: Saturday, 7.30pm Admission: $12 to $37 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to


    What: Singers, pianos and a small instrumental ensemble bring to life Ein Deutsches Requiem, Brahms' ode to death and humanity. Performed by Addo Chamber Orchestra and Addo Chamber Choir. Where: Victoria Concert Hall, 9 Empress Place When: Aug 18, 8pm Admission: $30 from


    What: Expect the group's signature mix of classical, pop and whimsical music to drum up funds for flautist Rit Xu, whose instrument was stolen in Malaysia. Where: Blu Jaz Cafe, 11 Bali Lane When: Aug 18, from 9pm Admission: For cafe patrons


    What: To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the TO Ensemble, founder Tze Toh creates another of his signature fantasy-themed concerts. Wonderland X uses animation, vocals and genre-bending music composed by Toh to create an evening straight from science fiction or anime. Where: Esplanade Recital Studio, 1 Esplanade Drive When: Aug 26, 7.30pm Admission: $35 from


    What: Part of a series programmed by pianist Abigail Sin and violinist Loh Jun Hong. The audience gets a menu of keywords such as "whispers and nightmares" and can vote for the pieces it wants to hear. Where: Esplanade Recital Studio, 1 Esplanade Drive When: Sept 8, 7.30pm Admission: $30 from Sistic


    What: As part of its 15th anniversary celebrations, The Philharmonic Orchestra is playing every Beethoven symphony this year, under the baton of founder Lim Yau. This concert features Beethoven's romantic Eighth Symphony and the pastoral Sixth Symphony. Where: Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre Auditorium, 1 Straits Boulevard When: Sept 9, 7.30pm Admission: $25 from Sistic


    What: Singapore's most prominent string quartet kicks off a series of Beethoven concerts. The programme includes Beethoven's String Quartet No. 12 In E-Flat Major and Bartok's String Quartet No. 1, both romantic pieces dedicated to doomed or unrequited love. Where: School of the Arts Concert Hall, 1 Zubir Said Drive When: Sept 23, 7.30pm Admission: Go to

Groups vying for attention include small chamber ensembles such as The Chamber Orchestra and Addo Chamber Orchestra. They are usually created by and stocked with graduates from Yong Siew Toh Conservatory or Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts' music degree programme with the Royal College of Music.

Musicians from these larger, traditional ensembles also set up eclectic groups such as Pixel Apartment (piano, guitar, violin, trumpet, ukulele, vocals and percussion), Singapore Horn Sounds (horn octet) and Xin Saxophone Quartet.

How to convince audiences to listen to a concert of only horn or harp music? Harpist Katryna Tan wrote and directed the harp musical Pluck in 2012, revived in 2015 and this year.

SSO horn player Kartik Alan Jairamin and his friends at Singapore Horn Sounds play anywhere they can, including at Car-Free Sunday in the Civic District, to widen their reach. They play in schools and hold "horn get-togethers", where students in school bands can hang out with professional players.

Their outreach has worked. Their concert at the Esplanade Recital Studio in June was sold out. Kartik, 33, says: "You have to bring music to people, not wait for them to come. That's the way Singapore is."

Some musicians look for gimmicks to entice listeners. Take, for instance, the More Than Music concert series programmed by pianist Abigail Sin and violinist Loh Jun Hong since December 2013.

Their concert next month is a "live jukebox". Instead of a typical programme with titles such as Beethoven Piano Sonata No. 24, the audience will receive a menu of keywords such as "whispers and nightmares". Listeners use stickers to vote for the pieces they want to hear.

Sin, 25, says taking titles away will "get people to engage with the music on a personal, emotional level and listen with fresh ears".

She adds: "This brings the audience closer to how musicians ourselves experience music. I, for one, often focus on banner words or phrases for pieces that I play."

Continuing in the key of demystifying classical music is the Orchestra of the Music Makers, set up nine years ago by professional musicians and music students. It has built a critical reputation, is often invited to overseas festivals and, in June, presented a concert staging of Engelbert Humperdinck's 19thcentury opera Hansel And Gretel, in collaboration with Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay.

For those familiar with the Grimm fairy tale and the grim tones of parts of the German work, it is odd to learn the orchestra went all out to attract families with young children.

The orchestra needed to expand its audience, says violinist Christopher Cheong, 28. "During the concert, there was laughing, giggling, chattering, which surprised us, but... at least they weren't sleeping."

Demystifying classical tunes

Hansel And Gretel served as a bridge for the orchestra, guiding listeners from the hummable tunes of film composer John Williams to the epic Wagnerian operas considered the pinnacle of artistic excellence.

The Orchestra of the Music Makers' next concert on Saturday actually includes Williams' famous film soundtracks with a light show to accompany the Star Wars theme. Both nights of Hansel And Gretel at the 1,800- seat Esplanade Concert Hall sold out. Saturday's concert at the same venue is already a third full.

Gimmicks might get an audience in once, but how does one retain them? The 10-year-old TO Ensemble began winning fans in 2014 with original music accompanying original animations that told stories with a sci-fi feel. But the idea has become less original now, says founder Toh Tze Chin, professionally known as Tze Toh. In June, the SSO brought in the kiddy crowd by performing Chopin alongside whimsical animations in The Magic Piano And Chopin Shorts.

Yet, Toh says, he is more concerned with artistry than the size of his audience. He and his musicians make a living from playing at award ceremonies or corporate events. The annual concerts are where they showcase their style and taste.

"It is a struggle to sell tickets, yes," says Toh, 39. "The question is, what do you really want for yourself? We want to present innovative music, make what we want to make and ensure people come for it."

A younger ensemble with similar thoughts is Lorong Boys, comprising five 20somethings - flautist Rit Xu; pianist-guitarist Jonathan Shin; violinists Gabriel Lee and David Loke; and percussionist Joachim Lim. All graduates of Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, they were a nine-day wonder in 2014 after an impromptu performance on the MRT following a school party.

They still perform in public at the drop of a hat and for free - most recently last week in Orchard Road and earlier this year at Clarke Quay. Most of their gigs are paid appearances, such as at the Singapore Writers Festival in 2015 or school performances this year.

They do not know whether their Internet fame will translate into ticket sales. "We're still figuring it out," says Lim, 28, who, like his fellow musicians, teaches music and plays gigs with other artists to earn a living.

Working in the increasingly competitive Singapore scene does not daunt Lorong Boys. The members point to their inspiration, T'ang Quartet, who taught them at the conservatory.

"Hopefully in 20 years' time, we'll still be around too, and still look and sound good," says Xu, 28.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 08, 2017, with the headline 'Classical engagement'. Print Edition | Subscribe