Lee Kuan Yew ー Singapore’s Very Own Conductor

On the 23rd of March 2015,  Lee Kuan Yew, our first Prime Minister passed at the age of 91. We can’t help but think that a close kin of us has just passed upon hearing the sad news. Our condolences to the family of our founding father, Lee Kuan Yew. We deeply thank him for building such a strong and wonderful nation for us.

Mr. Lee has created an economically strong and politically stable country for us. Without him, we wouldn’t have had the chance to reach for the stars and pursue our dreams. As a supporter of the arts, he has encouraged many to think positively and through his inspiring confidence and reaffirming words, he has enabled his people to believe that they can accomplish and realize their dreams if they work hard enough.

Lee Kuan Yew

Very few know that Mr Lee had a part of creating the SSO in Singapore in the 1980s. Mr Lee and his Cabinet had planned for the creation of a symphonic group two decades ago and the group has grown significantly, touring widely in Asia, Europe, and the United States.  The Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) came together to play Bach’s ‘Air’ from Orchestral Suite No 3 in D Major before Mr. Lee’s eulogy.

Mr Lee has been like a conductor to us. He has successfully orchestrated and brought great influence to Singapore, his beloved orchestra. Similar to an orchestral performance, Mr Lee would receive applauses from his audiences on behalf of his contributions to Singapore. The love and appreciation for Mr Lee shown by his people mourning him after his death was his biggest. Thousands of citizens braved the wet weather to line up and pay their final respects to Mr Lee.

Singapore Symphony Orchestra ー The Story

Mr Lee shared his insight, vision, and development of classical music in Singapore at the opening ceremony of Victoria Concert hall in 1980.

These plans included:

1. The provision of scholarships towards promising musicians who might become members of the SSO.

2. Bringing in talented musicians from different countries.

3. Identifying and keeping talented musicians in Singapore.

4. Imbedding the values and priorities of talented Singaporeans, and instilling a tough minded business philosophy to ensure the SSO’s success.

“The key is to get enough who are professionally competent and are prepared to devote their lives to making music, diffusing musical appreciation and spreading the knowledge of musical techniques and skills.”

Building up a full symphonic orchestra was not an easy process. It would take 11 years to fully accomplish this feat. However, after great perseverance and effort alongside support from the government, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra was finally formed in 1979 and Victoria Concert Hall served as an interim home for the SSO until the 1990s. The SSO was built for a good cause – to encourage good musicians in our nation and to attract better ones.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew has said,

“For over 12 years, we have had fitful starts and stops with orchestras of amateurs led by part-time conductors. The Cabinet paper estimated that it would take 11 years before Singapore would have a full symphony orchestra with 70 players, and one which would deserve a full-sized concert hall. I thought then that this was optimistic. Within a year, the Minister for Culture submitted a proposal in principle, for a cultural centre at the Kallang Basin tip of Marina Central. We deferred a decision on it.

I now take pleasure in formally declaring this concert hall open. It is an interim home for the SSO until the 1990s. It is a small but high quality concert hall. It can swell the numbers of regular concert goers. Orchestras on their way to Australia, Japan or Hongkong can be enticed to stop over for two or three performances. Next, there are orchestras in Hongkong and Manila with whom the SSO can exchange visits. When the SSO has got its act together, it can play to audiences in Sydney, Melbourne, Tokyo and Seoul.”
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With this said, lets take a look at the transformation of Singapore’s very own Symphony Orchestra since the 1980s up till today.

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Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew at the opening of the Victoria Concert Hall on 1st October 1980

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Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew exchanging handshakes with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s Music Director Choo Hoey during a reception at inauguration of the newly refurbished Victoria Concert Hall in 1st October 1980.

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Performance by Singapore Symphony Orchestra during the inauguration of the newly refurbished Victoria Concert Hall by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on 1st October 1980

35 years later and still running…

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Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall in 2014

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The Interior of Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall in 2014

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Singapore Symphony Orchestra in 2003

Singapore is privileged to have such a great political leader who has helped us transform Singapore into a first class nation. We are also thankful to Mr Lee for his avid contributions towards the vibrant growth of music and the arts.


Caring for the welfare of his musicians

Mr Lee and his wife once attended a concert performance by the SSO at the Victoria Concert Hall. He noticed that some musicians were not performing during the concert, therefore he immediately pulled the stage manager aside after the performance and asked him a string of questions:

“What are the rest doing?”
“What are the other musicians doing when not required?”
“Are they paid?”

“I remember his attendance at a concert in 1990, where John Bingham played the 4th and 5th Beethoven piano concertos. Having joined the SSO board that year, I was seated in the row directly behind him and Mrs Lee on the balcony of Victoria Concert Hall.

Some time into the third movement, I remember Mr Lee kept glancing at his programme booklet, then would look at the orchestra for a few seconds before looking down again. This went on for some time.

At the intermission reception, he said to Mrs Lu Sinclair, the orchestra’s manager: ‘I see your booklet lists 80 musicians. I see only 53 on stage. What are the rest doing?’

Mrs Sinclair explained that the Beethoven concertos, as with many classical works, required fewer musicians. To which came the inevitable rapid-fire questions: ‘What are the other musicians doing when not required?’ and ‘Are they paid?’

He was eventually mollified by Mrs Sinclair’s explanation that some of the absentees had participated in a schools outreach programme during the week.”

ー Singapore Symphony Orchestra chairman Goh Yew Lin,
in an e-mail to SSO directors and council members

Mr Lee has always had the welfare of musicians at heart. As Singapore’s very own conductor, he also wants to see that his musicians are being well taken care of and well fed so that he can work hand in hand with them to bring music in Singapore to better heights. We see the hard work that Lee Kuan Yew has put into promote music and the arts in Singapore and we value the tradition that he has set for us. Lets work hand in hand to make Singapore an international and recognizable hub for music!

gramercy-admin, Gramercy Talks provides you an insider’s guide to classical music, operas, and musicals in Singapore. We are here to provide you with good musical related content and updates while promoting creativity and innovation through music and the arts.
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