SSO to play work by 19-year-old student at concert on Jan 29

Juilliard School student Koh Cheng Jin is described as a new musical hero for Singapore.
Juilliard School student Koh Cheng Jin is described as a new musical hero for Singapore.PHOTO: SINGAPORE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

The orchestra will play a work by 19-year-old student Koh Cheng Jin at its 37th birthday concert on Jan 29

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) celebrates established and new repertoire at its 37th birthday concert on Jan 29.

Heading the evening of Strauss and Mozart is Horizons, a new commissioned work by 19-year- old composer Koh Cheng Jin.

Conductor Darrell Ang calls her "a new musical hero for Singapore".

Ang, 36, is referring to the theme of the evening at the Esplanade Concert Hall - celebrating musical heroes. Anchoring the programme are Ein Heldenleben or A Hero's Life, a massive orchestral work by Strauss, as well as an appearance by lauded Singapore-born pianist Melvyn Tan - another of Ang's "heroes" - playing Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22 In E-Flat Major.

Koh belongs in this line-up, says Ang. "Here is a talent that is truly world-class," he says in an e-mail interview from Europe, where he is based.

"Her command of the orchestra - indeed of the instruments for whom she writes - is beyond her young years; her fertile imagination is full of strong ideas, and her innate musical sensibilities and feeling for form, structure and line are irreproachable."

He has followed her progress since he was music director of the Singapore National Youth Orchestra and she was a 13-year-old violinist and budding composer.

When asked to present a Singaporean composer for the orch- estra's anniversary concert, he immediately chose her.

He says: "I feel a lot of the music being written nowadays is not very good. There are some amazing talents, of course, and these are the composers whose music I deeply admire and would gladly study and perform. There are not many of them and when I come across a young composer of talent, which is a rare occasion, I get uncommonly excited."

Koh is in her first-year studying composition at the famous Juilliard School in New York, with financial assistance from Loke Cheng Kim Foundation in Singapore.

In 2014, when she was enrolled at the School of the Arts (Sota) here, she was one of eight Singaporeans under the age of 35 whose music was chosen by the SSO for its workshop, in an initiative to encourage young composers.

This month's concert marks the first time that the orchestra will play her work in public.

"I'm super stoked and excited," Koh says in a Skype chat. "This is an immense opportunity. I'm not as seasoned as others in the scene."

Horizons is between nine and 10 minutes long and was written in three months. She says it was inspired by a quote from the late former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew: "To the young and the not too old, I say look at the horizon, find that rainbow, go ride it."

She adds: "I was very affected by his death so the music starts on a dark note with a string quartet. Then it gets more positive and vibrant, from dark to brightness."

Koh is a multi-talented musician who has won prizes in the Singapore National Chinese Music Competition for playing the yangqin or Chinese dulcimer.

However, she started with Western instruments: At age five, her mother, a former piano teacher turned housewife, taught her to play the piano and sent her for violin lessons a year later.

Koh's father is a transport service operator. She has an older brother in national service and a younger sister in secondary school.

Though she majored in the yangqin at the School of the Arts, she turned to Western instruments for her first composition in 2011. The music was written for a school project where students had to apply their art to Shakespeare's Romeo And Juliet. The Western text called for Western instruments, she says.

A year later, she began writing more melodies under the mentorship of Dr Kelly Tang, who is dean, arts & special projects at Sota and teaches composition.

When the SSO chose her work Candle Burns At Both Ends for its workshop, she sat entranced as it brought her music to life.

She says: "I had goosebumps all over because it sounded so good and the orchestra brought my imagination to life way better than I had envisioned. It was a surreal experience I will never forget.

"From the reading, I was able to pick out certain issues regarding orchestration and balance which I can improve on and when I wrote Horizons, I remembered that."

She can hardly wait to return to Singapore and sit in on rehearsals for Horizons on Jan 26. "SSO is a fabulous orchestra and its sensitive playing really inspires me. I am so grateful for the opportunity."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 19, 2016, with the headline 'Teen writes for SSO'. Print Edition | Subscribe