From ionizers to digital concert halls, the orchestras in Singapore are adapting to the Covid-19 normal, Arts News & Top Stories

SINGAPORE – When the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO) held its first brass concert in months last Saturday (September 25th), there was more than just emotion in the air.

While the rousing sounds of Dizi, Sheng and Suona filled the concert hall, high-tech devices attached to 20 ornamental snakes in front of the stage created an “ionizing curtain” between the performer and the audience.

The ionizers, which are supposed to reduce the spread of Covid-19, induce a negative charge in the air particles around the plants. This pulls positively charged aerosols, droplets and fine dust towards the leaves of the plants.

The devices were introduced after a six-month collaboration between the orchestra and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A * Star).

Terence Ho, Executive Director of SCO, hopes that these – and a number of other measures, such as a filterless large-scale air purifier developed by A * Star for use in the foyer – will give people security and encourage them to attend concerts live.

“We have to work to get the audience back inside and more musicians on stage,” he told The Straits Times, adding that the plant-based ionizers will be used for future concerts at the Singapore Conference Hall, home of the SCO, will stay.

Since the pandemic, orchestras in Singapore have had to face capacity restrictions. Currently, up to 50 actors and crew members are allowed on stage and backstage, of which 20 actors can be exposed at any time. Live singing and playing wind and brass instruments were suspended prior to August 19.

Suonas and Guan director of SCO, Jin Shiyi, 56, says in Mandarin: “Pale players are now a ‘high risk’ profession and we have had fewer opportunities to go on stage. I am so happy that we are back on stage may occur.”

Last Saturday’s brass concert, which is also available to stream online, was part of the recently concluded Singapore Chinese Music Festival. It had attracted a physical audience of around 100 people, less than half the allowable capacity of 250 for this venue.

Mr Ho says audiences are concerned about the recent spike in Covid-19 cases and ticket sales for most concerts have been slow.

For now, he’s keeping his fingers crossed while the orchestra prepares for two concerts in early October, around the 25th. It has split the performers into separate “teams”, reduced rehearsals, and sub-studies in case performers are affected by the virus, or one 10-day quarantine ordered.

Meanwhile, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) opened a digital concert venue called SSOLounge this month, where people pay for a 12-month pass ($ 30) that gives them access to new releases and archive footage.

CEO Chng Hak-Peng says, “It is our attempt to see if we can win a subscription model rather than what we did on a concert-by-concert basis last year.”

Ionizers attached to ornamental snakes in front of the stage created an “ionizing curtain” between the performers and the audience at a concert by the Singapore Chinese Orchestra. PHOTO: SINGAPORE CHINESE ORCHESTRA

The orchestra would have started it even without the pandemic, he adds, to keep up the connection with local and overseas audiences. Before the pandemic, up to 10 percent of SSO viewers were tourists.

Domestic charity, The Foundation For The Arts And Social Enterprise, has also launched a 10-year Music Commissioning Series to support Singapore composers and build a canon of local contemporary music – from Chinese orchestras and cross-cultural works to jazz and musicals .

The series aims to commission a composer each year for over a decade, starting with culture medallion winner Kelly Tang. Each work will have a patron.

Founder Michael Tay says: “Although in the past we have had composers from Singapore who write works for wind band and orchestra, we do not see a systematic plan to encourage the writing of major works (of at least 30 minutes).” The series, he adds, “aims to fill this gap”.

Tang, 59, is working on a large orchestral suite inspired by the art of Chua Mia Tee, Simryn Gill, Eng Tow, Han Sai Por and Sarkasi Said in the collection of the National Gallery Singapore. It will be performed by the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra and premiered at the Esplanade Concert Hall in early 2023.

“For a few years now I’ve been thinking about how I can combine music with visual arts, as both art forms have a lot of concepts in common,” says Tang. “I’m grateful that the series made this collaboration between music and art possible.”

Kelly Tang, who was awarded the Cultural Medallion, is working on a full-size orchestral suite. THE BASIS

Mr Tay says the foundation hopes to work with all of Singapore’s orchestras. “We want our Singapore composers and their music to be embedded in our communities, and that can only be achieved if our orchestras support our composers with regular performances of their works.”

Despite the resumption of live concerts – for example SSO last November – life for orchestras has not returned to normal.

While live performances with up to 1,000 spectators are permitted under certain conditions, most venues can only accommodate a fraction of them after taking safe distancing measures into account.


“The Victoria Concert Hall has 673 seats. With two seats in between and alternating rows, we can fill 200, a maximum of 216,” says Mr. Chng. “There are 1,800 seats available on the Esplanade. We can only occupy 440 … That does not increase our turnover significantly.”

He adds: “Even though we do concerts, we still haven’t had our entire orchestra play together for the past year and a half.”

Then there is the impact on freelancers, who in pre-pandemic times often performed with the orchestra and gave pre-concert lectures. At the moment these freelancers are mainly the film crew due to the number restrictions.

Mr. Chng adds. “Our music freelancers are still struggling and we feel very limited in our ability to help this group.”

Countertenor and freelance choir director and educator Phua Ee Kia, 41, had no income for eight months last year and has not performed since 2019. He’s doing his samples online during the pandemic.

“Conductors have a really hard time, he says. “Not all of us are tech savvy and we have to deal not only with our own (problems) but also deal with situations where our students say, ‘I can’ I can’t hear you well ‘or’ My screen went blank ‘. “

Phua, who has taken an apprenticeship scholarship to take a course in Logic Pro audio production software, hopes there will be more educational and financial opportunities for freelancers.

As Singapore moves to life with the endemic Covid-19, the musicians are hoping that restrictions will be eased further.


SSO trumpeter Lau Wen Rong, 31, who last appeared at a live concert in May and is returning to the stage next month (October) for an SSO concert, says, “When we perform on stage, we need to be around 2pm Be meters apart, so we can’t hear each other really well and it’s difficult to adjust our intonation and articulation. “

Lau, who has spent the last few months with Zoom courses, can hardly wait to perform larger orchestral works such as Mahler and Bruckner symphonies again.

Phua says, “A choir is not just made up of five people. I hope that in the near future we will be able to gather and sing in a larger group, albeit with masks. Some of us forget what it is like to be able to perform in a larger group. “

SSO’s Mr Chng adds, “I believe we are ready for a resumption of the pre-pandemic numbers on stage, including with brass and brass and singers, when everyone is vaccinated and tested on the day of the performance – as we are now .

“The symphony orchestra as a performing unit and the size it has achieved – of around 100 people on the stage – has been around for around 100 years. And it has not grown or shrunk because of the combination of instruments and this number” of artists on the Stage give this emotional power … and make it possible to address the human soul through music. “

Instrumentation for the orchestral concerts in October

Music exposed: symphony for winds, brass and percussion

The Orchestra of Music Makers returns to the stage with Nigel Shore’s harmony version of Richard Strauss’ opera Der Rosenkavalier, conducted by Seow Yibin. The concert, conducted by Chan Tze Law, will also premiere the symphony The Times Have Changed by the Singaporean composer Lee Jinjun.

Where: Esplanade Concert Hall, Esplanade Theater by the Bay, 1 Esplanade Drive
When: Oct. 1, 7.30 p.m.
Entry: From $ 15
The information: Sistic website

SCO25 Our shared memories: The SCO yesterday

The highlights range from Erhu and Dizi concerts to a recorded chamber choir performance presented on stage with a live orchestra.

Where: SCO Concert Hall, Singapore Conference Hall, 7 Shenton Way
When: October 2, 8 p.m. (on site); Oct 2, 8 p.m. to Oct 10, 8 p.m. (digital concert)
Entry: $ 25 (on site); $ 15 (digital concert)
The information: Sistic website

Steinway Artist Joja Wendt – STARS ON 88

The varied program of the German piano virtuoso Joja Wendt offers daring interpretations of pop songs and classical music.

Where: The Star Theater, The Star Performing Arts Center, 1 Vista Exchange Green
When: October 3, 6:30 p.m.
Entry: $ 80 for adults
The information: Startix website

SCO25 Iridescent Rhapsodies

This gala concert will be played by concertmaster Li Baoshun in the Gaohu concert The Legend Of The Merlion; and Pipa Principal Yu Jia in the spring and fall.

Where: SCO Concert Hall, Singapore Conference Hall, 7 Shenton Way
When: October 9, 8 p.m. (on site); 9.10. 8 p.m. to 17.10. 8 p.m. (digital concert)
Entry: $ 25 (on site); $ 15 (digital concert)
The information: Sistic website

Sayaka Shoji – spirit of the violin

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra and the renowned Japanese violinist Sayaka Shoji present a program with pieces by Bruckner, Schumann and Schubert.

Where: Esplanade Concert Hall, Esplanade – Theaters on the Bay, 1 Esplanade Drive
When: October 14th and 15th, 7.30pm
Entry: From $ 28
The information: Singapore Symphony Orchestra website

Symphonic Fantasies – Kate Liu plays Mozart

Singapore-born pianist Kate Liu makes her local debut in this concert by Altenburg Arts and the Orchestra of the Music Makers. The program includes pieces by Stravinsky, Mozart and Weill.

Where: Esplanade Concert Hall, Esplanade – Theaters on the Bay, 1 Esplanade Drive
When: October 16, 7:30 p.m.
Entry: From $ 18
The information: Sistic website

VCH presents Kammer: From my life

In this program with music by Beethoven, Bruch and Smetana, the composer’s stories are woven into their scores.

Where: Victoria Concert Hall, Empress 9th Square
When: October 16, 7 p.m.; October 17, 4 p.m.
Entry: From $ 20
The information: Singapore Symphony Orchestra website

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