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Getting the show on the road: The Singapore Symphony Orchestra heads to Europe

Kirsten Han photo
Kirsten HanSingapore
Getting the show on the road: The Singapore Symphony Orchestra heads to Europe
The Singapore Symphony Orchestra is hitting the road again this May, travelling to five cities in Germany and the Czech Republic. I join them on one of their rehearsal days, reliving the experience of being an SSO kid hanging out backstage.

I first found out about the tour when my mum rang me: “Do you know someone who can cat-sit in May?”

There have been many tours — the SSO has performed around the world, from venues like the Royal Albert Hall to the temples of Angkor Wat. Their last overseas performance was a concert at the 2014 BBC Proms in London, for which they were given four out of five stars by the Guardian.

As a child there were some nights when I would be ushered out of the bedroom, bleary-eyed with sleep, to the phone. My parents would be on the other end. “When are you coming back, Mama?” I’d make her count out the remaining days, keeping track on my own stubby fingers.

On 20 May, the orchestra will set off and hit Berlin, Munich, Dresden, Prague and Mannheim on a concert tour a little less than two weeks long.

I’ve heard plenty over the years about tour preparations. But I’d never seen any of it for myself, or spoken to anyone other than my mum about it. This time, I decided to take a look.

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The Esplanade is quiet on a weekday morning; there aren’t any shows opening, and it’s still a little too early for the tourists and schoolchildren. The concert hall is dim, but the stage is lit and bustling with activity.

Warming up before morning rehearsals.

Musicians, clad casually in jeans, cluster around music stands chatting, or warm up by playing scales. Some sneak in a little extra practise, going through the scores already laid out on their stands.

As they settle in their seats, senior orchestra manager Ernest Khoo makes his announcements. Then he points me out, and I wave awkwardly as people turn to grin at me. The musical director’s face lights up with a smile as recognition dawns. It’s my first time hanging out with the orchestra in a long time; later, there are plenty of comments about how much I’ve grown, and how little I’d been the last time this or that person had seen me.

The SSO was officially launched in 1979, and both my parents were among their earlier hires in the 1980s; my mum a rank-and-file second violinist and my father the principal French horn. They’ve remained in those positions, along with a fairly large number of colleagues also hired in that period.

My parents warming up before afternoon rehearsals.

Starting off in their mid-twenties and early thirties, these musicians went through life together (a number, like my parents, quite literally). As milestones like marriage and parenthood were reached, children of orchestra members were pulled into the fold. I still have vivid memories of nights spent backstage at the Victoria Concert Hall, reading Anne of Green Gables on scratchy dark brown sofas. Back then, long before the refurbishment of the building, any sound made backstage would travel through the wide open stage doors and be heard in the concert hall, so it was also my job to invent ‘quiet games’ to keep the younger orchestra kids occupied and silent. (The practice of turning backstage into a spontaneous childcare corner ended with the move to the Esplanade in 2003, as security passes are now required for entry.)

Like with pop and rock, touring is important for classical musicians. It raises the orchestra’s profile, gaining it prestige as it chocks up a list of notable concert halls or music festivals. It’s a chance for the orchestra to show off its range and versatility before audiences around the world. (Bonus points: the home country might get some cred too.)

But touring is no mean feat. I’ve always known it to be far from the glamour that comes to most people’s minds when they hear the words “classical music”, “orchestra” and “concerts”. Yet artists like my parents form only one aspect of an orchestra on the go; while musicians, conductors and soloists tend to get the most media attention, getting that show on stage requires a small but determined behind-the-scenes force.

Orchestra manager Chia Jit Min works in the production office alongside senior orchestra manager Ernest Khoo.

I find orchestra manager Chia Jit Min huddled over a laptop next to a printer in a small room marked ‘Production Office’, a mask obscuring half his face in an effort to protect others from catching his cold. No one wants to get sick just before a tour.

Musicians sign up for the buses that will ferry them from one city to another one tour.

With a total of 114 people—musicians, freelancers, conductor and staff, not including the soloists — travelling en masse, the logistics is enough to cause some mild panic. Flights need to be booked, taking into consideration that some might opt to extend their stay in Europe and make their own way home. The shipping of instruments and wardrobe needs to be organised; any mistake in this area could potentially screw over the entire tour. Accommodation needs to be sorted out; each orchestra member is to get his or her own room this tour, unless two members are married and choosing to share. Jit Min is already worried by the thought of piling over a hundred travel-weary people into a hotel foyer and trying to get them all checked in at once.

An orchestra on tour can be a strange experience, a cross between military drill and school excursion. While Jit Min is part of the forward party that arrives at every venue to set up hours before the musicians arrive, senior orchestra manger Ernest Khoo’s job will involve chivvying everyone on to their respective buses and making sure none of the flock is left behind. If any of the musicians get sick on the road, it’s the job of the orchestra management team to figure out doctors, medicines and adjustments should that individual need to bow out of the show.

Lim Lip Hua sorts scores.

Outside the production office orchestra librarian Lim Lip Hua is sorting the scores from the SSO’s outdoor concert at the Botanic Gardens over the weekend, removing them from black SSO-branded folders and counting them up before putting them away.

“How does one come to be an orchestra librarian?” I ask. “What do you have to study to do that?”

Lip Hua grins. “I did engineering!”

Engineering background notwithstanding, Lip Hua had coached secondary school bands, teaching Sec 1 students so green he had to go through everything from scratch every year. When Jit Min’s move from librarian to orchestra manager left an opening in the SSO, Lip Hua decided to apply.

“You need to have some music theory, to be able to read music and be familiar with the instruments,” he says. Orchestra librarians have to identify the speed at which a piece is played, and look through the score for the best page-turning opportunities; achieving this could require some creative work with a photocopier and some sticky tape.

“You need to understand how a musician reads the score… You see, if there is only one bar of rest and then you have to immediately start playing once you turn the page, that’s not good,” he explains, showing me on score he’s pulled out of a pile.

Lip Hua, too, is a member of the forward party. It’s his job to put the folders, each containing the pre-arranged scores, out on every music stand before each rehearsal and concert. After each performance, it’s his job to collect the scores and stow them away for the next show.

“Sometimes the order in which pieces are played is different [from concert to concert],” he says. “I arrange the scores so the musicians can just flip the page and play.”

Elango makes sure everything is set up before the conductor comes on stage for rehearsals.

The leader of the forward party is arguably Ramayah Elango, who describes himself as a “stage management officer”. Elango’s worked with the SSO for almost three decades, first joining in 1989 as a crew member and working his way up. His predecessor, Ansari bin Hamid Marican, had been a fixture at Victoria Concert Hall since before I was born. In the days before mobile phones, “calling Uncle Marican’s desk” had been the best way to get hold of my parents while they were at work.

Elango says his job while on tour isn’t too different from what he does on “home base” — setting up and arranging the chairs and music stands to the right configuration, moving seats or instruments in or out between pieces, packing things up at the end of a performance.

But there are added responsibilities too: Elango has to wait at the airport t0 ensure that all the instruments arrived safely, and in one piece. He’s also the one who oversees the packing of instruments into flight boxes so that the precious cargo, worth at least hundreds of thousands, are properly stowed for travel. He reportedly once had to wait six hours at an airport because the instruments arrived late.

I ask if he’ll get much of a chance to sight-see in the cities the orchestra is visiting. He shrugs. “I guess on the days marked as travelling days, if we arrive early that’s when we can look around or go shopping. Or maybe if there are a few hours between rehearsals and the concert?”

Elango will only have one crew member, Radin Sulaiman bin Ali, travelling with him on this tour, which is why other members of staff like Lip Hua and Jit Min will have to help him arrange music stands and chairs throughout the trip. Local employees of the various venues will also be on hand, but it’s this SSO forward party that needs to make sure everything is in order.

“We even put up signs like, ‘Toilets This Way’ or ‘Dressing Rooms Here’, so that when the musicians arrive in the new space they don’t get stressed out wondering where everything is,” Jit Min says. Everything is done, as much as possible, to ensure the musicians need only focus on the performance.

Signs are prepared for everything on tour, so no time will be wasted looking for things.

Back in the concert hall, the SSO’s musical director Shui Lan is taking the orchestra through Maurice Ravel’s La valse, un poème choréographique pour orchestre. Standing onstage, one can feel the music vibrate up the soles of one’s feet.

It’s an old, familiar feeling, bringing me back to the days when I stood in the wings watching and listening to the orchestra playing at Victoria Concert Hall. Zhang Jin Min, the principal bassoonist, had done a solo one time, and my parents had volunteered me, along with his son, to bring him flowers onstage at the end of the performance. I’d found it terribly exciting waiting for my cue to flounce onstage with the bouquet, although that was mostly because I’d been allowed to put on a frilly ‘princess’ dress.

Lan works through the piece, occasionally focusing on just the brass, or the cellos, or even the two harpists, making sure every section understands his interpretation of the piece.

I sit in the choir behind the orchestra, listening and taking photos. The orchestra will be taking this music with them from one city to the other, loading and unloading on to buses and trucks. For that almost-fortnight life will be travel, rehearsals, sound-checks and concerts, followed by the hours needed to wind down and actually go to sleep. The SSO — with many of its members not as young as they once were — will be tired from the miles they’ve travelled and the rehearsals they’ve had, but one thing’s for sure: they’ll never let on during the concerts. It’s part of their job, as a professional orchestra, to make it seem effortless, to never reveal how much work and effort it takes to get this show on the road.

The orchestra rehearses ahead of its European tour.

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