People

S'pore strikes a chord with SCO conductor

Mr Yeh with his wife Sau Lan in their new home in Tanjong Pagar. For the past 15 years, he had shuttled between the US and Singapore, staying mostly in a room in the Amara Hotel while he was here.
Mr Yeh with his wife Sau Lan in their new home in Tanjong Pagar. For the past 15 years, he had shuttled between the US and Singapore, staying mostly in a room in the Amara Hotel while he was here.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Musician finally gets home here after splitting time between orchestras in S'pore and the US

Maestro Yeh Tsung has finally got his own permanent residential address here, some 15 years after he joined the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO) as its music director and conductor in 2002.

The long delay is because the 66-year-old musician was, until recently, concurrently music director of the South Bend Symphony Orchestra in the United States. As a result, he had to split his time between two countries.

Before he moved into his rented two-bedroom apartment on the 30th level of a 40-storey condominium tower block in Tanjong Pagar two months ago, his home in Singapore - for most of the past 11/2 decades - was a room at the Amara Hotel nearby.

He decided to spend more time in Singapore and invited his wife of 34 years, Madam Wong Sau Lan, 60, to set up their new home here when he quit his US job last June, after leading the Western music orchestra in Indiana for 28 years.

They have three children. Their older daughter, Mona, 32, and son, Joseph, 19, are still in the US, but their younger daughter, Melina, 24, is now working in Germany.

"I have had enough of the frequent flying between Singapore and the US and it took a lot out of me over the years," said the maestro in an interview with The Straits Times at his apartment recently.

FULFILLING HIS DREAM

Though I was trained in Western music and started by leading symphony orchestras in the US, there was an Asian side of me in music, which remained unfulfilled till I joined the SCO.

MR YEH TSUNG, who is a US citizen.

He explained that in the past, he would finish conducting an SCO concert on a Saturday night, fly back to the US the next morning and be ready for rehearsals with the South Bend's musicians for their next concert, usually on Wednesday evenings.

Conversely, from the US, he would often leave on a Saturday morning, arriving at Changi Airport by Sunday evening. On Monday morning, he would be ready to work with his SCO musicians for their weekend concerts. "I was like a ping pong ball flying from one place to another," he said.

The Singapore permanent resident hoped that by ending his frequent-flier routine, he could spend more time with his wife and get more involved in the local music scene.

Yesterday evening, for example, he was invited for the first time to guest-conduct the Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra's concert, Homage, at the School of the Arts.

And that was after he had conducted the SCO's regular concert, Flavours of Chinese Music, at the Victoria Concert Hall the night before.

On his new life here with his wife, he said: "I find my time filled up very easily, especially with requests from other music groups seeking my help and involvement, too. I hope I can contribute with my experience, especially in grooming the younger generation of musicians here."

Meanwhile, the Yehs are still busy setting up their new home in Singapore. Mrs Yeh said she would go back to the US soon to sell their three-storey house in a South Bend suburban district in Indiana. She said: "It is empty now. We lived there for nearly 20 years, the house where I raised our three children."

Daughter Mona, who got married two years ago, is working as a media producer in Los Angeles, and son Joseph is an undergraduate at George Washington University.

Born in Shanghai, Mr Yeh was already an accomplished pianist and had studied conducting at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music when he won a scholarship to the Mannes School of Music in New York to further his studies in 1981. He met his wife at a church there, where he played the piano and she was a member of the choir.

They married two years later, the same year he enrolled for a master's degree in music at Yale University. He became a US citizen in 1986 and conducted several symphony orchestras before joining the South Bend Symphony in 1988.

Mr Yeh has often been asked why he took up the two music directorships across two continents and how he managed to keep them going for so long. He said: "Though I was trained in Western music and started by leading symphony orchestras in the US, there was an Asian side of me in music, which remained unfulfilled till I joined the SCO."

He revealed that in his younger days in China, he was very involved in Chinese music, literature and the performing arts. He did research on them, resulting in the publication of a book on Peking opera singing techniques in the early 1970s.

"Coming to Singapore and directing the SCO, with its unique brand of music, helped me rediscover the 'Chineseness' in me, too," he said.

But taking up two jobs also meant almost no time for his wife and their three children over the past 15 years, as he could be with them together as a family for only about 10 days each year.

"It is still painful to recall those important moments, like my children's birthdays, anniversaries and their graduations when I could not be there," he said.

Mr Yeh, a Singapore Cultural Medallion recipient, said he was fortunate to have a very understanding wife and children who supported him all these years so that their relationships could remain close and strong.

Mrs Yeh added: "The sacrifices may be great for the family, but I am very proud of what my husband has done for Singapore and the SCO. I am looking forward to my stay with him in Singapore."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 06, 2017, with the headline 'S'pore strikes a chord with SCO conductor'. Print Edition | Subscribe