Music chief's $500k challenge for Singapore Symphony Orchestra

New head of company running SSO is looking for funds for the orchestra's European tour and young violists and bassoon players

Mr Chng Hak-Peng, the new chief executive officer of the Singapore Symphonia Company Limited, says that touring the orchestra helps to stretch the reputation of the orchestra overseas.
Mr Chng Hak-Peng, the new chief executive officer of the Singapore Symphonia Company Limited, says that touring the orchestra helps to stretch the reputation of the orchestra overseas. ST PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN

There are a few challenges in store for the new chief executive officer of the Singapore Symphonia Company Limited, which runs the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO).

First is the $500,000 that Mr Chng Hak-Peng, 42, still needs to raise for the national orchestra's tour of Europe starting in May next year.

Next is a "national shortage" of violists and bassoon players at the highest level, which will require enticing dedicated student players to learn more than one instrument, if not switch entirely from the popular piano or violin.

The orchestra will roll out this New Learner scheme next year as it takes over management of the Singapore National Youth Orchestra from the Ministry of Education on Jan 1.

SSO's engagement with students also extends to the National Piano And Violin Competition, a biennial platform to recognise home-grown musical talent. This year's edition, which concluded on Sunday, was co-presented with the long-term organisers, the National Arts Council. The next competition will be entirely under the SSO.

Ask Mr Chng about these new responsibilities, though, and he says the national orchestra is not expanding its agenda, but continuing with the mission set out when it was founded in 1978.

He says: "One of the objectives was to promote and inculcate a love of classical music in Singapore. If you think about it, everything fits together now."

Mr Chng, who is single, became chief executive of the orchestra's managing company on Oct 1.

He initially began working with it on a pro-bono basis seven years ago and was appointed the company's deputy chairman last year.

His background includes a degree in electrical engineering from Stanford University, an MBA from Insead, several years in the civil service, even more as a consultant with global management consulting firm Bain & Company - and a history of playing the tuba with the Singapore National Youth Orchestra.

For him, as for other youth orchestra alumni, it is important to have the Singapore National Youth Orchestra under the umbrella of the national orchestra.

On the surface, there will not be many changes: The Singapore National Youth Orchestra will still have the Youth Sinfonia training orchestra to help students hone their talent and the Youth Orchestra, which performs at home and overseas.

SSO musicians have also traditionally taught and mentored members of the youth orchestra, given the youth orchestra's origins as a feeder orchestra for the national ensemble - the SSO's new horn player Kartik Alan Jairamin says his first teacher at the Singapore National Youth Orchestra was the orchestra's principal horn, Han Chang Chou.

However, the new arrangement will make it easier to nurture "a talented musician from cradle to professional" and fill gaps in the classical music scene here, Mr Chng says, citing the New Learner scheme, which aims to groom musicians for top spots in local ensembles.

Next, is enticing big-name musicians to come to Singapore.

Mr Chng says: "A lot of the excitement about classical music comes from big names performing. Now we can make it more attractive for the artists. They can do recitals at Victoria Concert Hall or a concerto with the SSO and masterclasses with students."

For example, last month, German conductor Jonas Alber gave masterclasses to students at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory and also led the Singapore National Youth Orchestra in a performance at the Esplanade Concert Hall two weeks later.

Apart from grooming musical talent in Singapore, the SSO will be promoting Singapore overseas next year with performances at the Dresden Music Festival and Prague Spring International Music Festival. These run from May to early June. The tour has no official sponsor yet, leading to the $500,000 Mr Chng hopes to raise.

Expenses include having to buy air tickets for musical instruments as well as musicians. But there are incalculable benefits in touring, according to Mr Chng.

"It anchors the orchestra in the minds of the audience in a different region. This is important, that they can be seen on the same stage as other orchestras. It stretches the reputation of the orchestra," he says.

He adds that on tour, the SSO will perform the work of 30-year-old Singaporean composer Chen Zhangyi, as well as music from familiar names such as Strauss, Ravel and Schumann.

"We are very proud of the Singapore in our name," he says.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 08, 2015, with the headline Music chief's $500k challenge for Singapore Symphony Orchestra. Subscribe