Singapore Symphony Orchestra's music director Lan Shui to leave post in 2019

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra conductor intends to spend more time with his family

Shui Lan has led the Singapore Symphony Orchestra since 1997.
Shui Lan has led the Singapore Symphony Orchestra since 1997. PHOTO: SINGAPORE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

Conductor Shui Lan, who has taken the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) to new heights during his 20 years as music director, announced yesterday that he would step down in January 2019 after the orchestra's 40th anniversary.

The China-born Singapore permanent resident, who turns 60 this year, said he wants to spend more time with his wife and two sons, aged 11 and eight months.

Shui broke the news to the orchestra during rehearsals for Friday's near-sold-out Beethoven Gala concert. Packed halls are among the positive changes attributed to him.

The news caught musicians by surprise. Co-concertmaster Lynnette Seah teared up. She said: "It's like your parents leaving."

The 58-year-old violinist has been with the SSO since its first concert in 1979 under Singapore maestro Choo Hoey. Shui took over as music director in 1997.

Under Shui's baton, the SSO has gone from a promising national ensemble to winning international acclaim. Its televised BBC Proms debut in 2014 received four out of five stars in The Guardian and The Telegraph. It was hailed as possibly "one of the great orchestras of the 21st century" by the London Spectator after a 2010 performance at London's Royal Festival Hall.

At home, SSO concerts are 85 per cent sold out. Its free open-air performances at the Botanic Gardens attract up to 8,000 concertgoers at a time.

Big-name musicians feature regularly on the programme. This month, the SSO was led and praised by legendary Swiss maestro Charles Dutoit and Los Angeles-based superstar Gustavo Dudamel.

Concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich, 37, calls Shui's resignation "the end of a very long and fruitful era". "The orchestra and country have been fortunate to have had a steady hand for so long," says the American violinist, who joined the SSO in 2013.

Violinist Seah says Shui's sustained push to bring in top-class collaborators made the orchestra excel in a relatively short span of time. "Lan has honed us to be a better orchestra. He's made the orchestra go faster than it would have under someone else."

But Shui feels he has taken the orchestra as far as he can. It is time for him to move on, he told The Straits Times, for the sake of both his "families" - his children and the SSO.

"I always saw myself as a transition. I took over from maestro Choo and, one day, I would transfer the baton," he said."I was the luckiest person to work with this orchestra for such a long time, but one person can only give so much."

He has been divesting himself of orchestral titles to spend more time with his wife, a Chinese-American vocalist, and his two children. His second child, a boy, was born in June last year. He has an 11-year-old son from his first marriage to an Icelandic cellist and travels between Singapore and Copenhagen to be with his family.

He was chief conductor of the Copenhagen Philharmonic from 2007 to 2015, and recently concluded a five-year period as artistic adviser to the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra. Long overseas stints have been rough for the devoted father. "If I can't see my family for three weeks, I'm upset," he says.

The SSO title is the last he will give up. The orchestra foresees him returning for regular engagements.

The orchestra is run by the Singapore Symphonia Company and the chairman of the board, Mr Goh Yew Lin, said in a statement: "I am saddened by Lan's decision to leave, but I also look forward to the new possibilities that will open up as we begin the search for a worthy successor."

He added: "We owe Lan a great debt of thanks. Over the past 20 years, he has patiently built the SSO into one of Asia's finest. He knew from the start what he wanted to achieve and he could be incredibly tenacious on matters of principle and standards, but he also remained throughout a thoughtful, caring and inspiring leader."

It will take up to three years to find a replacement and the orchestra will be involved in the discussions. SSO's chief executive officer Chng Hak-Peng will oversee planning after Shui steps down. The programme for this season is finalised and the next is almost complete.

Shui says the SSO has a special place in his heart. "What's amazing about this orchestra is it's only 38 years of age and so well developed. Some orchestras go this way," he presses his palm down. "Not many orchestras go this way." He mimes a plane taking off.

"That's what the next music director must continue: to develop the orchestra."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2017, with the headline Singapore Symphony Orchestra's music director Lan Shui to leave post in 2019. Subscribe