Founding SSO conductor Choo Hoey comes out of retirement for 40th-anniversary concert

Though maestro Choo Hoey has been enjoying retirement in Athens with his wife of 50 years, he has picked up his baton just for this concert.
Though maestro Choo Hoey has been enjoying retirement in Athens with his wife of 50 years, he has picked up his baton just for this concert.ST PHOTO: JASMINE CHOONG

SINGAPORE - Forty years ago, maestro Choo Hoey conducted the debut concert of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) and included in the programme American composer Charles Ives' The Unanswered Question to symbolise his worries about whether the new ensemble would last.

His concerns turned out to be unfounded. On Thursday (April 18), he conducts the SSO at the Esplanade Concert Hall for its 40th-anniversary season and the programme promises early works from noted composers who would go on to transform the musical landscape.

The repertoire includes Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 4, written when the composer was only 19, and Bartok's Suite No. 1, penned when the composer was 24.

The concert's highlight is Song Of The Nightingale, which Stravinsky adapted from his first opera. "It is not as famous as his Firebird or Petrushka but I think it is one of his great works," says Choo, 85. "I think it is of a very high standard."

Though he has been enjoying retirement in Athens with his wife of 50 years, Greek archaeologist Alexandra, he has picked up his baton just for this concert.

The SSO is like one of his children, says the father of two sons, recalling how he gave up a conducting career in Greece to set up Singapore's national orchestra from scratch.

This was 1978 - a time before the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory at the National University of Singapore, the Esplanade - Theatres On The Bay, or even the numerous musical ensembles performing today, existed.

 

"There was nothing, no musicians, nothing," he says. "I had to do everything."

From his office in the former City Hall building which held only a table, chair and telephone, he called every musical acquaintance he had, took out ads in the newspapers and organised auditions. His duties back then ranged from recruiting musicians to negotiating salaries and planning the orchestral season.

"The first concert, I remember, there were a lot of things I couldn't find answers for. I couldn't find musicians, I didn't know whether the orchestra would last."

There were only 41 musicians at the SSO's 1979 debut at the Singapore Conference Hall. Later, Choo visited embassy parties hosting visiting musical ensembles to recruit for the SSO.

A home-grown orchestra was a huge deal for Choo, who was born into a house of music-lovers in Palembang, Sumatra, in Indonesia. He remembers being woken at 5am by his teacher-father, Choo Seng, to tune into the BBC Proms concerts on the radio.

"He would say: 'Come! Wonderful music.' He never let me sleep."

Their home was full of plate-sized gramophone records of symphonies, each record holding only up to 20 minutes of music. When he was seven, his father brought home a mini-violin and a teach-yourself musical textbook.

When his parents sent him to Singapore in 1947 for his own safety, during Indonesia's struggle for independence against Dutch colonisers, Choo took his first violin lessons from noted music pioneer Goh Soon Tioe. Later, he studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London and under Hungarian violinist Andre Gertler in Brussels.

At his first professional conducting gig in Belgium, he invited the director of the Brussels Philharmonic Society, who was impressed enough to ask Choo to fill in when a conductor died days before a concert with the Belgian National Orchestra.

 
 
 
 

He settled in Greece after meeting his wife and worked with various orchestras in the country when he was invited in 1977 to return to Singapore and found the SSO. He led it until 1996, when conductor laureate Shui Lan took over.

Choo recalls several growing pains. The money was too low to attract talent and his programmes were criticised for including modern music and excluding popular music.

"In the later period of my time with the SSO, all the concerts may not be full but my responsibility is to build the orchestra," he says.

"The most important thing is you know exactly what will develop the orchestra and raise the standards of playing."

In recent years, the orchestra has debuted at the famous BBC Proms (in 2014), made well-received tours of Europe and the United States, and attracted conductors like the noted Vladimir Ashkenazy and soloists like cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

So is Choo's unanswered question from 40 years ago now answered?

He laughs. "It is not for me to give you an answer. The audience can draw its own conclusion."


BOOK IT / SSO SUBSCRIPTION CONCERT: MAESTRO CHOO HOEY

WHERE: Esplanade Concert Hall, 1 Esplanade Drive

WHEN: April 18, 7.30pm

ADMISSION: $15 to $88 from www.sso.org.sg or Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to sistic.com.sg)