Profile: Adrian Tan

Published on 7 November 2015

From using untrained choristers to promoting local music, conductor Adrian Tan shares his orchestral priorities.

BY Melanie Lee 

Adrian Tan, 38, was once mistaken for a 17-year-old by a 60-year-old violinist while guest conducting in Romania. “Not too long ago, there was no such thing as a young conductor,” muses Tan. “It can be intimidating, leading musicians who have played twice your lifetime, but I try to overcome this with enthusiasm, passion and innovation.”

Indeed, Tan has been a trailblazer of sorts ever since he became a professional conductor in 2012. He’s currently the music director and conductor of three orchestras: Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra (BHSO), Saigon Philharmonic and Singapore Wind Symphony. He’s also the executive director of the Musicians Guild of Singapore.

Tan’s love for music started when he was a student conductor at Victoria Junior College. He continued being an amateur conductor for community orchestras even as he served as an officer of the Republic of Singapore Navy for over 10 years. However, the pull of music proved too strong. In 2009, he pursued a Masters in Music Studies (Conducting) at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music under the National Arts Council Overseas Scholarship.

“Music produced by large ensembles is very powerful and expressive, and being a conductor gives me the best seat in the house,” shares Tan. However, he remains grounded about his role. “No sound comes out from waving your hand with a stick. The music comes from the musicians. A conductor is more like an umpire. You add direction to the music, but the less presence you have, the better the flow.”

One of Tan’s top priorities is to make classical music accessible to every Singaporean. This January, he led BHSO, an amateur orchestra, to perform Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (considered one of the greatest pieces of classical music) with a community choir consisting of 30 untrained singers. “I really wanted to show that you don’t need to have learned the piano since age six to be involved in orchestral music.”

He champions music by local composers and makes it a point to perform at least one Singaporean composition in every concert he conducts. “Local composers are expressing important things about our country, our society, and if orchestras here don’t perform them, who will?”

Tan hopes to experiment with intercultural performances, which he’s quick to clarify, is different from multicultural performances. “It’s not about lining up people from different musical cultures. It’s when one person, who is deeply entrenched in his own culture, is ready to engage with someone from another culture. They put their craft on the table and create something new. After all, why should a Singaporean orchestra sound just like a Western orchestra?”

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