Classical music's new crop of rising stars

The opening of arts institutions and more chances for performing are some reasons for the rise in the number of young musicians here

Yang Shuxiang. -- PHOTO: YANG SHUXIANG

The future of Western classical music in Singapore looks bright, thanks to a crop of accomplished young musicians aged 30 and under.

These promising talents have mostly been educated at overseas music institutions and are fiercely passionate about bringing their experience and expertise back to their home country.

The number of such young musicians has increased over the last few years, says Dr Chang Tou Liang, Life!'s freelance classical music reviewer.

"There are many more young musicians now and there are also more opportunities for them to perform.

"Previously, you win a competition and that's it. But now, more orchestras are engaging young artists," he adds.

Their burgeoning numbers have been bolstered by the founding of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music at the National University of Singapore, which opened its doors in 2003 and offers degree-level training in music, and the inception of the School of the Arts in 2008.

The latter offers an International Baccalaureate programme for 13- to 18-year-olds who can choose to do the performing arts as a subject, including music.

There are now also plenty of orchestras where young musicians can rack up performing experience.

The Metropolitan Festival Orchestra is the successor of the Singapore Festival Orchestra, which was founded in 2007, and the Orchestra of the Music Makers, a volunteer group, started in 2008.

Life! profiles five of the fastest- rising young classical musicians and highlights three others to take note of.

Alan Choo, 24


While other musicians might be hunting for fresh sounds, violinist Alan Choo's focus is on bringing the past to life. He is interested in historical performance, a movement which has been gaining popularity over the last 50 or 60 years.

"Historical performance means if you're playing a piece by Bach or Handel from the 17th century, you use a Baroque violin or a harpsichord, which is an instrument that was made in those times," he explains. "So you learn to play on that kind of instrument and play in the kind of style that they would have used in the past."

A Baroque violin's bow is shorter and tighter, with less hair, and the violin is strung with gut instead of today's metal strings. The result, says Choo, is a "warmer and a more naturally ringing sound, but one which cannot project as loud".

His love for music, and historical performance in particular, began when he was a child.

His father, a doctor, enjoyed playing the piano casually, so "at home, there would always be piano music", he recalls. "Dad would play a tune and ask me to sing or dance to it, so it was quite a nice environment growing up."

The violinist is the eldest of three children. He has a younger sister and brother, both of whom used to play the violin but have since stopped.

He also remembers his parents used to play a recording of Corelli's violin sonata performed on period instruments. "There was something special about the sound and the way those people played it - that was very appealing to me."

However, Choo never got to play a Baroque violin until he went to the Peabody Conservatory in the United States. He graduated from the institute last year with two master's degrees, one in violin performance and another in early music.

Before that, he studied at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, which he enrolled in when he was 15. "At that point, I wasn't 100 per cent sure I wanted to do music, but it seemed like a great opportunity as I had got in before I was of age."

It was his father who encouraged him to take up the place. "My dad asked me, 'Have you ever considered becoming a musician?'... I think he saw potential in me to make this my career."

After taking a break from his studies to complete his national service, Choo graduated from the conservatory in 2011 with a bachelor's degree in violin performance. That same year, he won first place in the biennial National Piano and Violin Competition in the violin artist category.

The year after, he entered Peabody and graduated last year. Now, the bachelor is back at the institution in his first year of study for a graduate performance diploma in violin performance.

After his two-year course is over, he hopes to return to Singapore. "I'm not saying this to be politically correct, but I do really have a special connection to my home soil."

He sees Singapore's budding classical scene as an opportunity and hopes to start a Baroque orchestra here. "People say Singapore is limited in terms of classical music, but if you look at it another way, you can start a lot of things. It depends on your entrepreneurship, creativity and ideas."

Shaun Choo, 23

Composer and pianist

The moment Shaun Choo began to play the piano at the age of seven, he was already composing his own music.

"At that time, we didn't have CDs, so it was all recorded on tapes and mini-discs," says Choo. "My dad bought about 200 blank cassette tapes - each one could record about 60 minutes - and a cassette recorder, and each time I was inspired, I would press record and play."

He has since converted some of those recordings to MP3 files to preserve about 20 full-length compositions and numerous other fragments of melody.

Although he is now an accomplished pianist, having placed first at seven international competitions, his career is the indirect result of his parents' love affair with another musician: French pianist Richard Clayderman.

The only child of a housewife and a factory manager first dipped his toes in music by teaching himself how to play the guitar at age six before switching to the bigger instrument only because "my parents really liked to listen to Clayderman. The piano is also grander, bigger and looks more difficult, so they thought it was more competitive. I was young, so I didn't really care", he recalls.

Although he began taking piano lessons without any strong feelings for the instrument, he found himself racing through eight grades in five years and attaining a piano diploma when he was just 14. In the process, he found himself falling deeper in love with music.

"By the time I was 12, I realised it's something I cannot live without. I really enjoyed working with music, practising it and everything about it," he says.

At the age of 15, he was accepted into the prestigious Mozarteum University of Salzburg in Austria. There, he had to learn how to fend for himself. "I still remember when I had to learn to cook. I had to be taught by my mum," he says. "We would Skype and I would set up the video camera in the kitchen. She would tell me to do this and to do that, as she was watching live."

In 2010, Choo came back to Singapore to serve national service. Even though he could not practise his ideal five to six hours a day, his creative streak was still strong. An administrative support assistant at Headquarters Signals, he was commissioned to compose a song for the Signals Formation. "It's called Voice Of The Battlefield and they sing it every day. I'm proud to have contributed to the formation."

After completing national service, he returned to Mozarteum University last year to complete his bachelor's degree in music. He is now in his second year of the four-year course.

He is also the first Singaporean to stage a solo recital in the 1,614-seat Esplanade Concert Hall. His performance in June prompted Life!'s freelance classical music reviewer Albert Lin to write that "if Choo isn't performing in the biggest concert halls and with the top orchestras of the world in a few years, it would be the biggest injustice".

After the bachelor finishes his degree, he says he will be coming back to Singapore. "I don't know if I will be based here, but I can say I want Singapore to be one of the places that I contribute to."

He hopes to return to help young pianists. "I really enjoy teaching. I enjoy it when someone comes to me with problems and I solve the problems, and the next week they come and they play fluently."

Edward Tan, 28

Conductor and violinist

At the age of four, Edward Tan's musical career began when he picked up a kid-sized violin.

These days though, instead of a bow, you are more likely to find him picking up a conductor's baton.

"I really enjoy how conducting allows you to engage with the music directly," says Tan, who is married to a 31-year-old piano teacher. They have no children.

"When I'm playing, I have to worry that I'm playing in the correct rhythm, that I'm playing in tune and about my technique. But as a conductor, I can listen to the music from a bird's eye view and engage purely with the musical part of the performance."

Now, he conducts regularly with groups such as the Orchestra of the Music Makers and in secondary schools.

He also plays the violin, performing with groups such as the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra and recently with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Proms.

Tan got his start in the music world due to a toy violin keepsake.

As a little boy, his pilot grandfather was in the habit of bringing back little souvenirs whenever he flew. "From one of his trips, he brought back a very small-sized violin for me to try out," the musician recalls.

He enjoyed playing it and began both piano and violin lessons around the age of six.

However, he found that he progressed faster in the stringed instrument and eventually chose to focus only on the violin, as "a lot of people say that the string sound is very close to the human voice, and I felt it was very lyrical".

While he was studying at Anglo- Chinese School (Independent), the three- time prize winner at the biennial National Piano and Violin Competition decided he wanted to pursue music full time.

At that point, the only option was to go overseas, as the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music had not yet opened.

He was accepted into the Eastman School of Music in New York and left for the United States after completing his O levels and deferring his national service.

Tan says of his experience there: "It was tough, but it wasn't an ultra- competitive, cut- throat kind of school. I had the opportunity to work with, and be exposed to, a very high level of music- making."

After graduating with a bachelor of music degree, he returned to Singapore to do national service, before heading off again to Yale School of Music, at the age of 23. There, he spent two years completing his master's in violin performance.

He says the decision to come back to Singapore was an easy one. "There were a lot of opportunities for me in the US, but I felt like there was more I could do here.

"There was a lot of exciting stuff going on in the Singapore music scene and I wanted to see how I could be part of that."

He is contributing to the scene not just in the capacity of concertmaster and performer, but as a teacher as well.

He runs a studio from home, where he conducts private violin lessons.

"Education is something I enjoy. I enjoy the process of preparing to perform as much as the performance itself, the process of getting there.

"And I think it's nice to be part of that process, in whatever capacity, for another musician."

Tang Tee Khoon, 30


If you open the dictionary, you will probably find a picture of Tang Tee Khoon next to the word "overachiever".

Her academic career was nothing short of stellar. The Nanyang Primary School pupil entered the Gifted Education Programme in Primary 4 and went on to study at Raffles Girls' School (Secondary) and Raffles Institution (Junior College).

Musically, she was a high-flyer as well. At the age of nine, she won the Best Performer Award at the biennial National Piano and Violin Competition and began performing overseas at 11.

But these accolades did not come without hard work, for the girl whose parents thought that learning the violin would be "good for my focus and discipline".

The second of three children of a piano teacher and a businessman says: "From a very young age, I had a very strict schedule at home. We ate at a certain time, practised at a certain time, slept at a certain time and studied for a certain number of hours a day. Everything was very scheduled."

Her strict upbringing has ingrained in her a tendency towards discipline and regulation.

"I am very demanding of my friendships and I also give a lot. I am very demanding of myself. Like when I read a book, I am very disciplined in getting the kind of knowledge that I want to get," she says. "I guess 'intense' would be the word to describe my life."

While still in junior college, her dedication paid off. The self-described perfectionist was admitted to the prestigious New England Conservatory in Boston.

She describes her decision to study overseas as a "leap of faith". "Life here was comfortable - I had my family and friends. But at the same time, I decided it was either now or ever."

On her move to the United States, she says: "You have to be like a racehorse. You cannot look to the sides. You have to keep your focus on the goal because, otherwise, you would want to go home."

While she was there, she also kept her focus solely on becoming a better musician. "I was protective of myself. I was there to work, I wasn't there to play."

After graduating from the conservatory, she decided the next stop would be Europe, to "go back to the roots of Western classical music".

She completed a postgraduate degree at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and says her experience in Europe changed the way she listened to music.

"A performance in the UK is very spontaneous and not so planned. It's full of instinct and very flowing and colourful. (Whereas) in the US, it is planned and very solid, predictable, which actually makes it kind of boring," she says.

Since graduating in 2009, Tang, who is single, has been leading a jet-setting lifestyle. She completed a residency in Canada for half a year and has also played concerts in Germany, the US, the Philippines and Japan, in addition to a twice-yearly chamber music series in Singapore.

She hopes to continue performing internationally and says her goal is to give concertgoers the best music they deserve.

She says: "Whether it's to research more on the music or composers, or work more on my skills, presence and my physical body to keep it healthy and strong, everything is about that moment on stage."

Yang Shuxiang, 25


Violinist Yang Shuxiang, who began learning the instrument at the age of five, would be the first to describe himself as an "emotional musician".

"I'm very sensitive in general. It's not always a good thing in society, but in music, I think it adds a lot of flavour in playing because then you're able to express the whole gamut of emotion - tragedy, happiness, excitement," he says.

This trait of his playing has been noted by reviewers.

In a review of Yang's performance of a repertoire which included Brahms' Violin Sonata No. 2 In A Major (Op. 100) and Franz Waxman's Carmen Fantasy earlier this year, Life! freelance reviewer Chang Tou Liang wrote that of the musicians here born in the 1980s and 1990s, Yang is "arguably the most flamboyant".

Littered throughout the review are phrases which hint at Yang's sometimes larger-than-life approach: "dramatic life and death stance", "deluge of emotion" and "onslaught on the senses" are just a few.

The violinist has his mother to thank for his career. When he was about eight or nine years old, they attended a concert by violinist Sylvia Khoo's ensemble, Joyful Strings, at the Botanic Gardens. Khoo is an acclaimed violin teacher here.

"After the concert, we went to look for her, but she refused to give my mum her telephone number as her schedule was already very full," recounts Yang.

"My mum went to look through the Yellow Pages - there must have been 20 Sylvia Khoos - and many phone calls later, the correct one agreed to give us a listen. I think she was just impressed that my mum managed to hunt her down."

After listening to Yang play, Khoo agreed to accept him as her student.

For the son of a civil engineer and a housewife, that audition proved to be the start of his music career. He has an older sister who has a doctorate in biomedicine.

Nonetheless, during his school days at Raffles Institution, the thought of becoming a full-time musician never crossed his mind. "Like every other Singaporean child, I was supposed to grow up to be a doctor, lawyer or scientist. So school was No. 1 and music was just a pastime. I practised half an hour a day at most."

He excelled academically, bagging the top prize in biology in Secondary 3 and coming fourth in the cohort in Secondary 4.

However, Yang, one of the founding members of the Raffles Institution string ensemble, found himself more drawn to music than to the usual academic route.

"I loved music very much and talked about it to everybody. I guess a lot of people found me annoying because I spoke about nothing but music," he says with a laugh.

At 16, he was awarded a full scholarship from the Loke Cheng-Kim Foundation to pursue a bachelor of music degree at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, Maryland for two years, followed by Northwestern University for another two years.

Despite his age, he did not hesitate when offered the chance.

"I felt that if I wanted to be a violinist, I needed to go overseas. It's different from training in China or America, where people decide from five years old they want to be a violinist and practise six hours every day," he says.

"If I wanted to be a violinist, I had a lot of catching up to do and I had to leave early."

His overseas training provided structure for his violin playing and he began to approach the instrument scientifically instead of just instinctively. However, he still managed to retain his trademark passionate playing style.

After completing his undergraduate studies, he did a graduate diploma course at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory and is now pursuing a master's degree in music at the New England Conservatory in Boston, Massachusetts.

For now, the bachelor wants a performing career and is not sure where the job opportunities will take him.

"In the music world, job prospects are quite limited and you have to be prepared to go wherever the opportunity arises," he says.

ST 20141209 LISMUSICDD8C 888363m

Other young talents

Abigail Sin, 22

The piano prodigy hit the headlines in 2001 when she was just nine years old, for delivering her debut solo full-length piano recital, Simply Abigail, at Chijmes Hall in front of 300 people.

At 14, she began studying for a music degree at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music. In 2012, she graduated with a master's degree in music from London's Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Together with violinist Loh Jun Hong, she co-founded the More Than Music concert series here, which aims to present classical music in a more accessible, casual manner.

ST 20141209 LISMUSICYW84 888373m

Loh Jun Hong, 24

The violinist was one of three Singaporeans who recently made it past the first cut of the inaugural Singapore International Violin Competition, which is open to violinists under the age of 30.

Next month, he will be competing against 34 other violinists for the top prize of US$50,000 (S$66,200).

In 2005, at the age of 15, he was the youngest Singaporean admitted to the National University of Singapore - a title which Sin quickly assumed when she joined him at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, which is part of the university, a year later.

Last year, he completed his master's in music from the Juilliard School in New York.

ST 20141209 LISMUSICXMB1 888357m

Ike See, 25

It was at the ripe old age of 10 that the violinist took his first music examination. But it was only because he had skipped the first seven grades and headed straight for the final grade eight.

By 14, he had obtained six music diplomas, all with distinctions. In 2005, aged just 16, he led the Singapore National Youth Orchestra as concertmaster to bag the first prize at the International Youth and Music Festival in Vienna.

In 2006, he made headlines when his application to defer his national service to do a three-year programme at the Curtis Institute of Music in the United States was rejected. The Defence Ministry eventually let him pursue a two-year diploma programme instead.

He was associate concertmaster of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra in Australia from 2012 to this year and recently joined the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.