Singapore Symphony Orchestra



The Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) is a fulltime professional orchestra that officially debuted in 1979 as Singapore’s national symphony orchestra. The SSO first trained under the baton of then resident conductor and music director Choo Hoey in 1979. Since 1997, its music director has been Shui Lan. The 96-member SSO now counts the Esplanade Concert Hall as its performing home, with also regular performances at the Victoria Concert Hall.1

Formation
The present SSO was established after several attempts to form a permanent orchestra in Singapore. The Singapore Musical Society had established a Singapore Symphony Orchestra in the 1950s as had the National Theatre Trust with their Singapore National Orchestra, though the latter folded in 1970 due to lack of interest and funds.2


In 1973, however, Singapore still lacked a national symphony orchestra. Minister for Defence Goh Keng Swee had described the situation as a “scandal”.3 His remarks were echoed by members of the public as well as local musicians. A proposal for the formation of an orchestra was then submitted to the Ministry of Finance, but it was rejected because it was proposed that the orchestra would comprise only foreign members.4

It was only in 1977 that further progress was made. The popularity of conductor Yoshinao Osawa’s performances with the Singapore Philharmonic Orchestra suggested that there was local demand for a professional orchestra.5 Goh then discussed the issue with then Attorney-General Tan Boon Teik and Associate Professor Bernard Tan.6 The outcome was the decision to invite Choo, a Singaporean who was conductor of the Athens State and the Hellenic Radio and Television orchestras in Greece, to form the orchestra.7 Choo accepted the invitation, but noted that it would take 15 years for the orchestra to attain world standards, and that initially it would need to have a high proportion of foreign musicians.8 In December 1978, the SSO recruited 27 foreign musicians to join the pioneer batch of eight Singaporeans.9 The orchestra of 41 members comprising 13 Singaporeans10 was formed in 1979 with Choo as the resident conductor and music director.11

Initial years

The SSO gave its inaugural concert on 24 January 1979, at the Singapore Conference Hall. The first piece it performed was the national anthem, “Majulah Singapura”.12 The programme also included Rossini’s overture to the Barber of Seville, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 (Emperor), Ives’ The Unanswered Question, Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, and the Chinese composition, Dance of the Yao People.13 Following that, the SSO performed fortnightly. It moved to Victoria Concert Hall as the resident orchestra in 1980.14 By then, the SSO comprised seven Singaporeans out of 52.15 The SSO performed Dayong Sampon Overture by composer Leong Yoon Pin that same year – the orchestra’s first performance of a Singaporean work.16

In the early years of the SSO, it experienced various problems. There was the issue of finding venues for rehearsals and performances, as well as a high turnover of musicians.17 In the first year alone, the general and orchestral managers and several musicians resigned.18 In 1981, orchestra members submitted a petition to Goh after their wages were reduced.19

Furthermore, even though there was initially strong support for the orchestra, concert attendance began to decline.20 This decline, coupled with the SSO’s perpetual financial deficits, prompted the orchestra to adopt measures to reach out to a wider audience. For instance, concerts were held in schools, community centres and at lunch time in the business district.21 The SSO also held concerts featuring better-known pieces and light classical music.22 In addition, schemes like Musicians for Hire, where musicians could be paid for performing at external functions, and Sponsorship of Musicians’ Salary by organisations, helped to supplement the orchestra’s funds.23

Despite these difficulties, the SSO attained several achievements.24 In 1980, it embarked on its first overseas performances in Kuala Lumpur and Penang while making its European debut on its Scandinavian tour of 1985.25 In 1981, it launched its first record which comprised Chinese pieces. In 1983, it held its first outdoor concert at the Istana.26 The SSO Scholarship Scheme also gave out overseas music scholarships via the Public Service Commission.27 Returning scholars were bonded to the SSO.28

Further developments
The SSO continued to implement new programmes such as the Rolex Music Performance Awards in 1987 where participants from Southeast Asia and Hong Kong performed, accompanied by the SSO. Winners received a cash prize and had the opportunity to publicly perform a concerto with the orchestra. However, the competition was discontinued in 1989.29


In 1989, on the occasion of the SSO’s 10th anniversary, nine musicians who had been with the orchestra since its formation were awarded medals, including conductor Choo Hoey and violinist Lynnette Seah.30 At this point, there was also a trend towards the formation of chamber music groups within the orchestra, such as the T’ang Quartet.31 A decade on, the SSO came of age with a standard size orchestra of 86 players, 43 of whom are Singaporeans.32

The orchestra’s 15th anniversary in 1994 was commemorated with a book that featured a series of black-and-white photographs by Russel Wong, one of the orchestra’s musicians. The following year marked the introduction of the SSO’s annual President’s Young Performers Concert, first commissioned by then President Ong Teng Cheong.33 The concert was intended to raise funds for charities selected by the president.34

Shui Lan years
The year 1996 was significant for the SSO, as music director Choo handed the torch over to Shui Lan, who assumed the post on 1 January 1997. Choo, however, remained involved with the SSO as conductor emeritus.35 Shui indicated that the SSO would now have more concerts for young people, as well as more overseas tours. The orchestra would also perform more well-known works as well as Asian music. However, performance standards also needed to be raised, prompting him to re-audition and in some cases sack orchestra members.36


Additionally, there was a major drive to raise funds for the orchestra.37 The SSO claimed that it needed to expand its current budget of S$8 million, as it was actually much less than that of other orchestras. It was also facing difficulties in vying with other arts groups for private sector funds.38 Thus, the SSO embarked on its Save the Ears Crusade in 199739 to raise funds from the public and the corporate sector in order to double its endowment fund that had been established since the orchestra’s formation, and at that point stood at S$35.5 million.40 This was followed by a two-year fundraising drive, starting in 1998, that aimed to raise at least S$10 million.41

Upon the SSO’s 20th anniversary in 1999, it commissioned five composers in Singapore to compose “musical birthday cards” for the orchestra.42 In the SSO 21 plan, it indicated that it would seek to reach out to its audience, focus on Asian music and attempt to collaborate with other arts groups.43 In 1999, it recorded its first album with the international label BIS44 and performed at the National Day Parade also for the first time.45

In 2000, the SSO unveiled a new logo46 and its Composers-in-Residence Scheme, which involved commissioning a composer to write a symphonic work every year.47 The orchestra moved to the Esplanade in 2003 and faced new challenges of filling twice the number of audience seats, as well as better acoustics that would expose performing errors.48 In 2011, the FJ Benjamin-SSO Bursary was created to aid music students.49 In 2014, the SSO premiered the works of eight young local composers at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, the first such initiative in 10 years.50 That year also saw the SSO contingent of 98 musicians, under the baton of Shui, debut at the BBC Proms in 2014 to an audience of 5,500.51 The performance was commended by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.52 In 2015, the SSO began a mentoring programme for local musical talent with the Singapore National Youth Orchestra.53

Affiliated groups

The Singapore Symphony Chorus was inaugurated in 1980 under the direction of chorus master Lim Yau, and has often performed together with the orchestra.54

The SSO Ladies League was formed in 1984 with the aim of raising funds for the SSO, especially in light of its financial difficulties in the early years. The 18-member League has organised charity dinners, fashion shows, walkathons and even published cookbooks in order to raise funds.55 These funds have been used for purchasing instruments and equipment, notably a S$283,700 Klais pipe organ.56 Additionally, in 1992, the league organised Experiences in Music, a programme in schools that introduced students to music. Students were also invited to an open house at Victoria Concert Hall.57

Timeline58
1973:
Goh Keng Swee comments on the lack of a national symphony orchestra.
1978:
Formation of the SSO.

24 Jan 1979: SSO’s public debut with a concert at the Singapore Conference Hall.
1980: First overseas performances in Kuala Lumpur and Penang; formation of the Singapore Symphony Chorus.
1981: First SSO album is released.
1982: Debuts as an opera orchestra with the New York Metropolitan Opera.
1983:
First outdoor performance, held at the Istana.

1984: Formation of the SSO Ladies League.
1985: First European tour.
1987–1989: Organises the Rolex Music Performance Awards.
1988: Starts holding family concerts.
1989: 10th anniversary, upon which nine pioneer members were awarded medals.
1992: Initiates the Ladies League Experiences in Music programme.
1994: 15th anniversary, upon which a commemorative book was published.
1995: Inaugural President’s Young Performers Concert.
1997: Save the Ears Crusade.
1 Jan 1997: Shui Lan takes over as music director.
1999: 20th anniversary, upon which the SSO commissions five musical birthday cards; SSO 21 plan launched.
2000: New logo unveiled; Composers-in-Residence Scheme launched.
2003: SSO moves to the Esplanade.
2005: SSO performs at the Singapore Botanic Gardens in the Gift of Music series of free concerts for the public.
2011: The FJ Benjamin-SSO Bursary is created.
Sep 2014: Debuts at the BBC Proms in London.
Apr 2015: Begins a mentoring programme for local musical talent with the Singapore National Youth Orchestra.



Author

Jan Yap




References
1. Singapore Symphony Orchestra. (n.d.). SSO story. Retrieved 2016, April 4 from Singapore Symphony Orchestra website: http://www.sso.org.sg/page.php?CategoryID=29
2. David, J. (1973, February 23). Goh’s call for symphony orchestra ‘most timely' says local musicians. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Ministy of Culture. (1973, February 16). Speech by Dr Goh Keng Swee, minister of defence, at the opening of the SEIWAEN (Japanese Garden) on 16th February, 1973, at 6.00 pm, p. 2. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
4. Oon, V. (1980, January 20). Happy Birthday SSO. The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Wong, R. (1994). Singapore symphony. Singapore: Landmark Books, p. 8. (Call no.: RSING 784.2095957 WON)
6. Chew, D. (2006, April 26). Orchestra manoeuvres in the dark. Today, p. 33. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Tan, T. G. B. (2012). Goh Keng Swee’s cultural contributions and the making of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. In E. Chew & C. G. Kwa (Eds.), Goh Keng Swee: A legacy of public service. Singapore: S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, pp. 279–298. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705092 GOH)
8. Oon, V. (1980, January 20). Happy Birthday SSO. The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. 27 foreign musicians join symphony orchestra. (1978, December 9). The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Woon, A. (1989, January 12). SSO: Full steam ahead. The New Paper, p. 16.  Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Singapore Symphony Orchestra. (1981). Yearbook. Singapore: Singapore Symphonia Company, p. 7. (Call no.: RSING 785.0625957 SSOY)
12. Fong, L. (1979, January 25). S’pore Symphony starts on right note. The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Wong, R. (1994). Singapore symphony. Singapore: Landmark Books, p. 7. (Call no.: RSING 784.2095957 WON)
14. Ling, P. W. (1979, October 31). Orchestra’s new home. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Ministry of Culture. (1980, October 1). Speech by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew at the opening of Victoria Concert Hall on Wednesday, 1 Oct 80, p. 1. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
16. An orchestra born without a tradition. (1994, October 8). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Wong, R. (1994). Singapore symphony. Singapore: Landmark Books, p. 9. (Call no.: RSING 784.2095957 WON)
18. Ling, P. W. (1979, November 7). Musicians moving on. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Idah Latiff. (1981, July 2). Dr Goh agrees SSO grouses well-founded. The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Tan, E. C. (1984, August 24). Attendance at SSO concerts drop to a five-year low. The Straits Times, p. 48. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. De Souza, John. (1984, June 1). Our arts sponsors. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. What a good show, SSO! (1984, May 8). Singapore Monitor, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. A good response to SSO’s ‘musicians for hire’ scheme. (1983, October 18). The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Facts about the SSO at a glance. (1984, January 8). Singapore Monitor, p. 19. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. Koh, T. Y. (1985, February 11). SSO going to Scandinavia. The Business Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Cheong, T. W. (1983, July 13). Strains of the SSO with an informal air at Istana grounds. Singapore Monitor, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Wong, R. (1994). Singapore symphony. Singapore: Landmark Books, p. 13. (Call no.: RSING 784.2095957 WON)
28. SSO music scholarships for two. (1980, September 5). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
29. Two other competitions. (1993, June 21). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
30. 9 SSO pioneers honoured for taking orchestra to new heights. (1989, December 10). The Straits Times, p. 28. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
31. Pereira, A. (1992, November 17). This quartet’s not square. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
32. Woon, A. (1989, January 12). SSO: Full steam ahead. The New Paper, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
33. Phan, M. Y. (1995, February 10). SSO on a presidential commission. The Straits Times, p. 17. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
34. Young musicians play for charity. (1995, September 20). The Straits Times, p. 28. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
35. Phan, M. Y. (1996, January 27). Choo Hoey to step down as SSO music director. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
36. Choi, L. (1997, December 21). Flamboyant Shui Lan whips SSO into shape. The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
37. Soh, T. K. (1997, May 26). SSO tuning efforts to woo corporate funds, donations. The Business Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
38. Wong, P. S. (1997, April 4). SSO wants more money to stay on top. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
39. Donations wanted. (1997, May 15). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
40. SSO wants more money to stay on top. (1997, April 4). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
41. Soh, T. K. (1998, June 18). SSO endowment panel plans to raise $10–$15m in 2 years. The Business Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
42. Tan, S. E. (1999, August 6). Happy Birthday! The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
43. Orchestra hits hip new note. (1999, August 21). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
44. I want to mould an SSO sound that is warm and exciting. (1999, January 15). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
45. SSO tunes up for NDP debut. (1999, July 10). The Straits Times, p. 40; Chang, A.-L. (1999, May 12). SSO part of NDP line-up for first time. The Straits Times, p. 24. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
46. Wee, L. (2000, January 17). Staying in tune with the times. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
47. Ee. J. (2000, April 25). GK Goh chief pledges $60,000 for SSO scheme. The Business Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
48. Tan, S. E. (2003, February 15). Ninety-eight and still going strong. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
49. Nanda, A. (2011, November 2). $150,000 for musicians. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
50. Nanda, A. (2014, February 11). Young composers get a boost. The Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
51. Beng, M. (2014, September 14). SSO sizzle at Proms debut. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
52.
Ting, I. (2014, September 5). Glowing reviews for SSO Proms debut. The Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
53. Singapore Symphony Orchestra. (n.d.). Singapore National Youth Orchestra. Retrieved 2016, April 21 from Singapore Symphony Orchestra website: http://sso.org.sg/page.php?CategoryID=295
54. Van. P. Y. (1989, December 4). Looking towards the first decade. The Business Times, p. 22. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
55. Khng, E. M. (1989, February 1989). The women behind the sound of music. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
56. Tan, S. E. (1999, September 3). Sixteen cheers for the musical tai-tai. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
57. Classical music at close range. (1993, August 11). The Straits Times, p. 20. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
58. Loo, G. (1989, January 13). Happy Birthday SSO. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



Further resources
Barbaric music a serious menace says Goh. (1973, February 17). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Bravissimo!: The quarterly newsletter of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. Singapore: Singapore Symphonia Co. Ltd.
(Call no.: RSING 784.2095957 B)

Chan, E. C. (1983, April 27). Orchestra goes out to catch the crowds. The Straits Times, p. 40. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Chan, E. C. (1984, January 17). The feeling at five. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Chew, M. (1996, June 1). A life devoted to music. The Business Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Chong, E. & Wai, C. L. (1979, January 24). Symphony orchestra’s debut night – sell-out for all concerts. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Double ‘score’ for the SSO in May. (1981, January 16). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Govt patronage a necessity, says Dr Goh. (1978, October 7). The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Intimate speech of musicians. (1989, October 24). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Lim, T. (1979, May 6). Versatile playing that made it hang together. The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

More concerts for the young, more tours. (1996, November 20). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Ng, R. (1985, February 13). Women form league to help orchestra. The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Orchestra hits hip new note. (1999, August 21). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Singapore Symphony Orchestra. (2009). A symphony of taste. Singapore : Singapore Symphonia Company Ltd.
(Call no.: RSING 781.68 SYM)

Singapore Symphony Orchestra. Singapore Symphony Orchestra annual report. Singapore: Author.
(Call no.: RSING 784.2095957 SSO -[AR])

SSO news. Singapore: Singapore Symphonia.
(Call no.: RSING q785.0625957 SSON)

SSO will change its tune for mass appeal. (1981, February 4). The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Videos and DJ help students enjoy classical music. (1992, April 7). The Straits Times, p. 21. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Wee, C. (1981, June 6). Grouses after SSO members compare notes on new pay. The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



The information in this article is valid as at 2016 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for further reading materials on the topic.

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Symphony orchestras--Singapore
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