Goh Soon Tioe award goes to a guitarist for the first time

Mr Kevin Loh, a graduate of the prestigious Yehudi Menuhin School in Britain, is the seventh recipient of the Goh Soon Tioe Centenary Award.
Mr Kevin Loh, a graduate of the prestigious Yehudi Menuhin School in Britain, is the seventh recipient of the Goh Soon Tioe Centenary Award. ST PHOTO: LEE JIA WEN

The Goh Soon Tioe Centenary Award, the only privately funded award for string players in Singapore, has gone to a guitarist for the first time.

The award's seventh recipient is 20-year-old Kevin Loh, a graduate of the prestigious Yehudi Menuhin School in Britain.

One of Singapore's most decorated young musicians, his string of accolades includes the HSBC Youth Excellence Award for Musical Excellence in 2010 and, most recently, the first prize in the open category at the 34th Volos International Guitar Festival and Competition in Greece last year.

The Goh Soon Tioe award, which was introduced in 2011 in memory of the late Singaporean pioneer violinist and conductor, is given to a young string player with a strong track record of musicianship and performance.

Loh, who received an $8,000 cash prize, says he is "happy and honoured to represent classical guitar in Singapore".

The award has been bestowed upon four violinists, including 16-year-old Mathea Goh Xinyi last year, as well as double bassist Julian Li and cellist Theophilus Tan.

Not many people know that Goh Soon Tioe was also an accomplished guitarist and a student of Spanish classical guitarist Andres Segovia, notes Loh, who won first prize at the Andres Segovia International Competition for Young Guitarists in 2014 and 2016.

He was talent-scouted for Yehudi Menuhin via his YouTube channel at the age of 12. He was the sixth classical guitar student in the school's history and the first from outside Europe.

For the first two years of school, he was granted a scholarship from the rock band The Rolling Stones. The bursary is given to all new guitar students at the school.

He has played on stages such as the Wigmore Hall in London, the Berlin Konzerthaus and the Suntory Hall in Tokyo, as well as in a refugee camp at Calais, France, which he and his fellow students visited with food supplies and to perform for the refugees.

He was one of five young musicians who auditioned for the award, which is judged by Goh's family and students.

Goh's daughter Vivien, 70, a violin mentor and Cultural Medallion recipient, says of Loh: "We were very impressed by his performance. He is very mature for his age. I don't think we will see another classical guitarist like him for a long time."

At the audition, he played four set pieces - Prelude from the Sixth Cello Suite and Gigue from the First Lute Suite by J.S. Bach; Etude, Op. 6 No. 12 by Fernando Sor; and Etude No. 1 by Heitor Villa-Lobos - as well as a piece of his choice, Joaquin Rodrigo's Invocation And Dance.

"It is slightly different from the other pieces, which are more baroque and classical," he says of Rodrigo's piece. "It is dramatic Spanish music - dark in colour and technically challenging."

The piece requires tricky techniques such as rasgueado and tremolo. "These are difficult on their own, but to have them in combination? I was nervous before the audition. I had cold hands."

Loh is the eldest of three children. His father works in the IT industry and his mother is a housewife.

After he graduated last year, he went on a solo tour of South-east Asia, finishing two days shy of enlisting in national service. He is now a combat engineer pioneer.

It is difficult to keep up his music training in this period, he says, though he tries to do what he can by doing stretching exercises.

"I hope there can be a better framework to help support musicians and others in the arts and sports to pursue their passions, yet integrate that with serving the nation," he says.

He will use his cash prize to further his studies - he has a couple of universities in mind, but has yet to decide - after he finishes national service.

He dreams one day of setting up a guitar department in a local university.

"Classical music has added a lot of colour to my life and I use it to express a language of emotion," he says. "Everyone should have a chance to experience this. As a classical guitarist, I hope to get rid of the assumption that it is a special field. It is a very accessible thing."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 31, 2018, with the headline 'Goh Soon Tioe award goes to a guitarist for the first time'. Subscribe