I Have a Date with Strings

Published on 23 December 2014

Some of the world’s best fiddlers will be taking a bow at the inaugural Singapore International Violin Competition.

TEXT BY JO TAN

While talent competitions can often produce flash-in-the-pan stars, the first Singapore International Violin Competition (SIVC) for violinists under 30 aims to make sure its winners are no passing fads, but remain as classic as the music they play. Prizes include a recording produced and distributed globally by classical label Naxos as well as performance opportunities in Asia and Europe, of which a concerto with the London Philharmonic Orchestra is a highlight. Add access to violins worth hundreds of thousands of dollars plus a US$50,000 (S$65,000) top prize, and the SIVC looks set to bring out the best talents.

Of course, participants have to earn their laurels, which is why out of 148 applications from 27 countries, only 35 from 14 countries were shortlisted in a blind listening test (think The Voice for violinists). Three stellar Singaporeans made the cut: Loh Jun Hong, 24; See Ian Ike, 25, and Phang Lijia, 24.

“Judging by the prize money, jury and participants, this classical competition is definitely one of the most difficult in the world,” says Loh. He should know. An alumnus of the prestigious Juilliard School in New York, he has won in contests like Boston’s Atlantic Symphony Orchestra Concerto Competition and Italy’s Andrea Postacchini International Competition. “I really don’t know my chances with the SIVC. The repertoire required lasts for over two hours. Simple slips and loss of concentration will spell the end of the competition run, especially since I’m up against many amazing violinists.” Indeed, many of Loh’s competitors are also winners of high-profile music contests and/or respected performers who have played around the world.

Judging the competition are legends in the classical world such as Pierre Amoyal and Shmuel Ashkenasi, who hail from France, the US, Japan and more, all chaired by Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music’s Head of Strings, Qian Zhou. A world-class violinist, Qian Zhou made history at the 1987 Marguerite Long-Jacques Thibaud Competition in Paris by winning the First Grand Prize and all five major prizes. She was only 18 years old then.

Singaporean competitor Phang, a member of several celebrated orchestras and a music scholar at Rice University in the United States, feels that both Singapore’s contestants and audiences are ready for the SIVC. “There is a lot of talent here in many areas of music and the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory has produced many great musicians who seem headed in the direction to positively influence the classical music world in Singapore and beyond.

“It’s very exciting for Singaporeans to be able to listen live to a competition like this. I bet people who think classical music is for old and stodgy people have never been to an amazing live concert. It’s interesting that when classical music is presented to them, many are very enthusiastic and ask a lot of questions.”

Indeed, one aim of the SIVC is to promote appreciation of classical music in Singapore and the region, an objective Loh (right) appreciates.

“I wanted to join the competition as I felt Singaporeans should be represented in such a huge event. I chose to come back to Singapore, over a full-scholarship offer to do a doctoral programme, to co-found a concert series here called More Than Music. My intent is to engage local audiences on a more personal level; allowing them to hear what we hear, love what we love. I hope such an initiative, as well as the SIVC, will make an impact and be part of the exciting change in the arts in Singapore.”

The SIVC is on from 10-21 Jan 2015 at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music Concert Hall (10-16 Jan), Victoria Concert Hall (18 & 19 Jan) and Esplanade Concert Hall (21 Jan).

Encouraging Violin Tendencies

On loan: rare and exquisite string instruments.

In a musical world where the slightest nuance can make or break, a great instrument could mean the difference between winning and losing. Yet, when a quality instrument costs at least tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, what’s an artist to do?

That’s probably why the SIVC’s prizes include the loan of a violin from philanthrophist Rin Kei Mei’s collection. The founder of EON Bank spends millions on an assortment of quality instruments specifically for lending to musicians unable to buy their own. It all began some 20 years ago on a business trip to Beijing, when Rin heard students from the Central Conservatory of Music performing at a hotel lobby with great skill but ghastly sound, thanks to their mediocre instruments. He bought the grateful group expensive German violins, realised there might be other musicians with similar plights, and gradually assembled the Rin Collection, now boasting approximately 500 rare violins, violas and cellos. Several are quality 17th-century instruments that can cost millions of dollars each.

These precious masterpieces are loaned for years at a stretch, strings and insurance included, to Singapore’s promising and/or professional musicians — acclaimed classical string collective, the T’ang Quartet, are beneficiaries. More amazingly, the Rin collection is not the only rare violin loan available in Singapore. The National Arts Council as well as Dr Wilson Goh, Founder of GPA Dental Group and Director at Tanglewood Music School, also lend instruments to spectacular and talented artists.

Another String to Her Bow Phang Lijia can add playing before esteemed judges at the SIVC to her list of musical accomplishments.

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