Playing to the Crowds

Published on 4 July 2016

Never underestimate the popularity of music outdoors — Concert in the Park celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.

BY JOEL TAN

Petrol company ExxonMobil is no stranger to the arts. It is the corporate sponsor behind the popular Campus Concert series, which helps produce free performances at the National University of Singapore. It’s also the title sponsor for one of Singapore’s longest-running public concerts series, The National Arts Council (NAC)-ExxonMobil Concert in the Park (CIP), which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary. Initiated in 1996 as a way to bring new audiences to the arts by putting up shows in public parks, the series has become one of the most beloved public concert series on the island, with a strong following and a regular billing of home-grown stars.

FREE & EASY

Outdoor concerts and music festivals have long been the natural home for some of the world’s biggest musicians, and it’s no different in Singapore, what with events like the Neon Lights Festival and Laneway Festival. But in its own special way, the CIP series, which stages concerts four times a year, has been ahead of the curve for some time now. The best part? It’s a community effort — admission is free, the acts are a hit with families and built around bringing new audiences to the arts.

Over the years, the series has picked up major state support: on top of ExxonMobil, the series is today the joint labour of the National Parks Board, NAC and Singapore Botanic Gardens. “Their committed support over the years has been invaluable in enabling CIP to bring enriching arts experiences to the masses and enlivening Singapore’s public spaces such as the parks,” says NAC’s deputy director of Arts & Communities Quek Yeng Yeng, pointing to the average of 2,000 attendees who flock to the Botanic Gardens for each concert.

But the series didn’t always happen at the illustrious national gardens, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site last year. It started off as a more humble set of roving performances that moved between smaller parks like West Coast Park and Bishan Park. But as it gained traction among music lovers, organisers decided to shift the series permanently to the Botanic Gardens so fans would have a regular downtown spot to frequent.

Even though the series has moved out of heartland neighbourhoods, Quek highlights that with Singapore’s maturing arts scene, the series has settled into a niche. “It draws audiences that prefer to enjoy the arts in such open park settings,” she says, pointing to how the concerts have emerged as an alternative to more formal, sit-down affairs. In the parks, pets, picnics and young children are allowed, which is a major draw.

LAWN PARTY

It’s no surprise that despite the proliferation of concert venues across Singapore — which range from intimate music lounges to large concert halls — the CIP series retains a certain charm, even in our sweltering, unpredictable weather. Frequented mostly by families and expatriates looking for a lawn to lounge on, the marriage of a leisurely weekend spot and good music has become the event’s biggest appeal.

And the music isn’t an afterthought either. Featuring a mix of both emerging artists and big-name stars, recent acts have included indie crooner Charlie Lim and classical music hotshots the T’ang Quartet. Over the years, the series has expanded its repertoire to include genres as diverse as xinyao, concert band music, jazz and hip-hop.

Daniel Koh, a writer and music lover, agrees that the open-air format, mixed in with his favourite musicians, help to make the series extra special. He brought a date to Charlie Lim’s concert in September last year. “The music was really chill, perfect date music, and the Botanic Gardens setting is one of the last truly romantic spots on the island,” he says.

MUSIC FOR THE MASSES

But it’s not just audiences who benefit. The series, which focuses mainly on home-grown acts, has also served as a valuable platform for emerging artists to develop their craft. “One of the aims of the series has always been to draw artists seeking to hone, engage and share their artistic talents with the masses on this big stage,” says Quek, referring to the Shaw Foundation Symphony Stage nestled within the Botanic Gardens’ sprawling lawn, which has hosted groups from the Singapore Symphony Orchestra to the Singapore Lyric Opera.

The CIP series has indeed come a long way, and in its 20th year, concert- goers will be treated to exclusive souvenir picnic mat giveaways and postcard souvenirs with artwork by visual arts collective, Urban Sketches Singapore. Earlier in June, the anniversary season kicked off with sets by local veterans, Jack & Rai, a cappella group Juz-B and percussion ensemble, Bloco Singapura, reflecting its eclectic, something-for-everyone vibe.

With three more concerts to go this season — happening 18 September and
6 November, as well as 5 March 2017, head out to the park with someone special or family and friends, picnic basket in hand, and be part of one of Singapore’s longest-running outdoor concert series.

For more on the NAC-ExxonMobil Concert in the Park series, visit www.nparks.gov.sg.

Concert in the Park, Botanic Gardens, November 1996

Bishan Park hosts A Valentine’s Special in February 1999.

Bad Boys Batucada perform at Fort Canning Park, October 1998.

Music lovers were treated to orchestral music in the great outdoors at this 2001 Concert in the Park event.

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