Profile: Jason Lai

Published on 15 March 2016

Conductor Jason Lai tirelessly goes above and beyond the call of duty to share the music he loves with the wider public.


“My friends always ask me, ‘What do you do during the day, if anything?’ ” says Jason Lai with a laugh. As it turns out, even though concerts are mostly evening affairs, he is always far from free. Besides being associate conductor with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO), he’s also principal conductor of the Conservatory Orchestra at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music (YST). He recently ended his associate conductorship with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta, and has been guest-conducting other orchestras in cities from Tokyo to Malta.

“When I’m not performing, I’m busy preparing music and studying scores to be able to communicate orchestral discipline to the YST students, and get the professionals thinking beyond the notes,” says the affable prize-winning musician. “That’s how the life of a conductor should be — there’s a lot of great music to conduct out there.”

Lai’s efforts go above and beyond those of most conductors, however. Last year, he spearheaded Project Symphony, a TV series in which he set up a community orchestra involving people from all walks of life. Since he arrived in Singapore from the UK six years ago, he has been creating regular, fun shows for children and the community at large. Often, these involve banter, characters, games and even food, with the goal of initiating the audience into classical music with Lai himself as the very likeable show presenter.

“That means scripting, videoing, choosing music, and trying to put together something entertaining and educational,” says Lai. “For Jason’s Short Guide to Music History this month, my idea is to turn the Victoria Concert Hall into a time machine which is broken, and the kids have to help me re-energise it through games and music. Then we time-travel to visit Bach, Beethoven, Debussy and Bernstein. Kids nowadays have access to so much information that you have to think outside the box to catch their attention, but once you do, they ask great questions. They want to learn.”

But why take on the triple duty of producer-presenter-conductor, when as a sought-after music-maker, he could simply focus on conducting at a standard concert anywhere in the world? “I just love classical music and I want to share that passion because it is something that has enriched my life. I absolutely believe that classical music is accessible to everyone, even though some brand it as elitist. Which makes me laugh sometimes because you pay hundreds to sit right at the back of a Beyoncé concert, whereas for $30, you can get great seats at a concert hall.”

For Lai, the implications are important. “Living in this MTV or post-MTV generation, many of us have a three-minute attention span, so listening to a Mahler symphony which lasts over an hour can be testing. But when you learn to swim, you don’t just dive in. You start with armbands, and eventually, you can swim wherever you want. I’d like to think I’ve been able to help with that.”

Concerts for Children: Jason’s Short Guide to Music History is on 18 & 19 March.

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