The Straits Times
June 16, 2008
The monday interview, Lifestyle
By Stephanie Yap
An entire generation of musicians have played or sung under SSO resident conductor Lim Yau, who is still mentoring and nurturing amateur ensembles
THOUGH conductor Lim Yau is in the process of moving house, the living room of his condominium in Sembawang - the aptly named Euphony Gardens - is still decorated with all manner of music paraphernalia: bookshelves full of music scores, towers of CD cases and a wall covered with framed posters of concerts and operas he has conducted.
Most of the posters are elegantly subdued and the one that stands out is a poster for the Singapore Lyric Opera's 2006 production of Mozart's The Marriage Of Figaro. It shows the corseted torso of an amply-endowed woman as two pairs of apparently male hands lace her up.
'Part of my agreement with the Lyric Opera was that I would get the poster,' the resident conductor of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO), 56, says in a quiet, deliberate manner, as if carefully considering each word before uttering it.
'I tried to find the person whom the pair of boobs belongs to. But, I think, it is maybe computer enhanced.'
He pauses for a beat, then chuckles softly in his sonorous, bass-baritone voice.
Indeed, his reserved, imposing manner and wry sense of humour are well known among musicians who have worked with him during his almost 30 years of conducting.
SSO's fixed fourth-chair first violinist Chan Yoong Han, 33, says: 'He may appear fierce and stern on stage but he's actually a very warm person inside, with a wicked sense of humour.'
Besides his work with the SSO, Lim is the music director of the Singapore Symphony Chorus, which he has worked with since 1981. He was music director of the Singapore Youth Orchestra from 1990 to 2002 and co-founded the Lyric Opera in 1990.
Life! classical music critic and SSO board member Chang Tou Liang, 42, says: 'Practically all the younger musicians of Singapore, professional or amateur, have played or sung under him - I would say an entire generation.'
Dr Chang himself first met Lim back in 1992 when the physician joined the Singapore Symphony Chorus, where he sang for 10 years as a tenor: 'Lim is known for his droll humour and dry wit, which he often uses to diffuse potentially tense situations when the choir does not sing to his expectations.
'Choir members regard him with awe and sometimes reverential fear, but he is always an approachable person who is very frank and candid, and does not mince words.' The only baton-wielding gig on the local classical music scene which Lim, a 1990 Cultural Medallion recipient, does not appear to have taken up is the big one: that of music director of the SSO, a position currently held by China-born conductor Shui Lan.
But he seems more bemused than defensive when you ask if he has ever wanted to be the SSO's music director. 'No,' he says firmly. 'It is a very hard job. It takes a different type of person to do that.'
Then, in his quiet, deliberate way, he adds: 'I doubt I'll ever be. But that is not an issue. I am happy where I am, contributing in the way I am contributing.
Those who can, teach
AS IT turns out, the contribution Lim seems proudest of is not to any professional organisation. He is most animated when he talks about amateur music societies which he founded - the 14-year-old The Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the 10-year-old The Philharmonic Orchestra.
Though these ensembles are defined as amateur, the members are so highly regarded that they are occasionally hired for professional engagements, and are described by Dr Chang as 'Singapore's most accomplished semi-professional classical outfits'.
Lim seems especially attached to the orchestra as he has known many of the musicians since they were teenagers with the youth orchestra, and has even referred to them as 'my children'.
'Those who, having been provoked, scolded, insulted by me, and are still willing to stay - they stay long,' he says, chuckling.
He has been preparing the two ensembles for their upcoming concerts. On July 10, the choir will present Light And A Hundred Colours, a concert of sacred motets from the Renaissance.
On July 27, the orchestra will present Northern Exposure III, featuring the fifth, sixth and seventh symphonies of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.
It is the last in a series of three concerts featuring the composer's complete symphonies. The orchestra has tackled Beethoven and Schumann in previous symphony cycles. 'It is a good experience for us, as well as the audience, to do the journey together,' says Lim.
His work enables music lovers who do not pursue music as a career to continue pursuing it as a passion.
One example would be Ms Wang Siao Hua, 29, an officer with the Ministry of Education who plays double bass with the orchestra. She first met him when she joined the Singapore Youth Orchestra in 1991.
'It takes a while to get to know Mr Lim, and for some of us to get his jokes. But we are all his adopted children,' she says. 'Without his guidance, I'd have stopped playing in an orchestra long ago.'
Lim's dedication to the ensembles is all the more remarkable given that he is not paid for his work: 'I don't want them to pay me. I say, 'We are all putting in our spare time and let us build it up together'.'
Guiding non-professionals seems a natural fit for Lim, who comes from a family of teachers. In fact, his ambition as a young man was to be a music teacher.
'The funny thing is, I had never thought of being a conductor. I always had a very pragmatic approach to life and when I went to the Royal College of Music, I planned to be a teacher,' he says.
He candidly confesses that he 'did not like' the youth orchestra when he first took up its baton in 1990: 'I found the kids arrogant and maybe I was arrogant too, and we simply got nowhere together.'
In the end, it was his biological children who helped him appreciate the experience.
He has two children with his wife Quek Soo Hiang, his high school sweetheart who is a choir mistress with the Singapore Symphony Children's Choir. His daughter Veda Lin, 26, is now in Germany studying the baroque and modern oboe while his son Lin Juan, 24, is studying the cello at Manchester's Royal Northern College of Music.
'After my kids joined the youth orchestra as well, I became more than just a conductor. I was also a parent and I began to see that it is very meaningful to work with young people,' he says.
'They are always so open. To be able to plant the seed in their thoughts, to cultivate certain musical disciplines in them - I consider this a privilege.'From Beijing opera to batons
UNSURPRISINGLY, Lim came from a home filled with music.
The youngest of four children of a Chinese literature teacher and a housewife grew up in a flat in Tiong Poh Road, opposite a coffee shop which played Rediffusion, the cable radio service, from 6am to midnight every day.
'In the last half an hour before midnight, I would hear the nan yin, Fujian's ethnic instrumental and vocal music. It was a kind of lullaby for me,' he recalls.
The Chinese music would be followed by the British national anthem, God Save The Queen, as the station closed for the night. In the mornings, he would hear snippets of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony and Ravel's Daphnis Et Chloe used as mood music in radio soap operas.
Although his family was not musical, they played an instrumental role in his musical development.
'My father died when I was 11 and the little that I can remember of him is that he enjoyed reciting Tang poetry in Hokkien,' says Lim.
'He also liked Beijing opera, so I too like jing ju nowadays. I can't claim to know a lot about it, but I would happily sit through the whole show and listen to the songs.'
As for his mother, 'the only musical influence she had on me was that she would cane me if I didn't practise on my piano'.
Though he started studying the piano at the age of four or five, he never took any formal exams.
'I am quite rebellious and right from Day One, I did not see the point of doing that sort of thing,' he says. Still, he was accomplished enough that during his secondary school days at River Valley High School, he would help members of the Chinese orchestra notate music from cassette tapes.
But his first love was for the voice, which he attributes to hearing the Vienna Boys' Choir sing on television when he was in Primary 6: 'The television was not very common then, so you had to stand outside other people's windows to watch. They sang the Blue Danube, and I could not tear myself away.
'I kept hoping that my neighbours would not switch channels - though in those days there were only two, I think.'
He sang in the school choir and took his first music exam in his late teens, earning his Licentiate of the Royal Schools of Music (LRSM) in singing for both teaching and performance.
Though he was seriously thinking about pursuing music as a career by then, 'my mother had other thoughts', and thus he spent a year at the then Nanyang University studying biology.
'But this was 1970, the year the world celebrated the 200th anniversary of Beethoven's birth, and so instead of reading my biology textbooks, I studied Beethoven's symphonies,' he says cheekily.
In 1975, after completing national service, he left Singapore for the Royal College Of Music in London, studying voice and choral conducting and graduating with honours.
It was his three elder siblings - his sister and his elder brother were teachers, while his second brother worked in telecommunications - who paid for his three-year course. They are all retirees now.
He gained real-world experience by joining London's Philharmonia Chorus in his second year, where he sang under famous conductors such as Lorin Maazel, Seiji Ozawa and Ricardo Mutti, and after graduation, he joined the chorus of the Bayreuth Festival in Germany, which specialises in Wagner's operas.
Lim truly fell in love with conducting after attending a masterclass with famed conductor Sergiu Celibidache in 1980. So he was excited by the news that Singapore had set up its first professional orchestra in 1979.
In 1980, he applied for the post of chorus master with the Singapore Symphony Chorus. He got the job, but as then music director Choo Huey pointed out, it took up only one day a week. However, the orchestra did need a concert manager.
This was why, for the first three years after his return to Singapore, Lim found himself writing Chinese programme notes, picking artists up from the airport, ordering music, borrowing unusual instruments, and even accommodating the backstage demands of guest soloists.
'I had to prepare a bucket of hot water for a prima donna pianist, who had to warm her hands right up to the second before she walked on stage,' he recalls with a wry grin, referring to Israeli pianist Ilana Vered.
But his waterboy days were soon over. In 1983, he received a British Council scholarship to take an advanced conducting course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. He then worked as the assistant conductor of the SSO, eventually becoming the associate conductor.
'I had a three-year bond with the SSO and I have been stuck here ever since,' he says with a laugh.
He pauses for a second and adds: 'Well, except for when I resigned in 1997.'
That resignation caused no minor stir in the classical music scene at the time. Although it is understood that he left due to contractual and artistic disagreements with certain people in the management, he remains tight-lipped on the matter.
'We all have our differences,' he says simply, without any apparent rancour.
Three years later, he bumped into the SSO's current music director Lan Shui, who succeeded Choo in 1997. They chatted, and Lim signed on with the SSO again, this time for his current post of resident conductor.
What convinced him to go back after his dramatic exit?
He pauses, frowning thoughtfully. Then his face slowly breaks out into a grin: 'Because those people that had differences with me had all left the SSO.'
Indeed, as the SSO celebrates its 30th birthday next year, Lim is one of the few people who can claim to have seen the orchestra through its growing pains.
'With great amusement!' he quips, before breaking into raucous laughter.
When pressed to elaborate, he says coyly: 'You can't be too frank on this sort of thing, can you? I am very comfortable talking entirely openly, but it is not good for other people.'
Then, more seriously: 'I have seen myself grow, too. I am a typical SSO product. Much as I at times like to poke fun at it, like it or not, I am part of it.'