Concert Preview: An Inktroduction to the T’ang Quartet
By Lara Saldanha
6 September 2013
Singapore’s premier string quartet is celebrating its 21st birthday this weekend in a concert entitled ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ The quartet pays tribute in the title to its mentor, Czech violist Jiri Heger, references the three works that featuring Czech composers Erwin Schulhoff, Antonín Dvořák and Bedřich Smetana, as well as the quartet’s claim that they remain Bohemian at heart ‘after 21 years of musical travels from the classical world to the avant-garde and back.’ First violinist Ng Yu-Ying, second violinists Ang Chek Meng, violist Leslie Tan and cellist Lionel Tan speak of the quartet’s 21-year journey, its current challenges and hopes for the future.
How would you describe the quartet’s philosophy in one sentence?
Lionel Tan: Passion, honesty, commitment and grit to get to your goal.
Ng Yu-Ying: Perseverance…but always with passion!
Ang Chek Meng: To me, it has to be our recording of 2 CD albums in 2005. We planned a two-week trip to record the albums at a castle just outside Prague, Czech Republic but completed them in 5 days! It was lots of hard work and required lots of concentration! It is all worthwhile because these albums have won critical acclaim in the prestigious STRAD magazine and is something that will live on after we are done as a quartet!
How has the quartet changed in its 21 years?
Ang Chek Meng: We started out as a band of young men trying to bring classical music to the Singaporean audience. 21 years on, the quartet is in a position to educate and lead the next generation of talented young musicians to continue to keep this art form alive. We are able to do that thanks to the National Arts Council’s support and believe in us. We are also very grateful for the opportunities to shape young minds through our position as faculty at the Yong Siew Toh conservatory of music!
Ng Yu-Ying: Older!!! Wiser? Not sure…I guess most of the time. We fight less, and try to work more efficiently to achieve the best results we possibly can. There will always be another way, but the best way is when we all agree!
What are the greatest challenges that the T’ang Quartet faces today?
Ang Chek Meng: To make classical music relevant in this modern world where attention span is short and where you have only 30 seconds to make your mark! In this new reality, where we have to compete with so many other forms of entertainment, just simply presenting concerts and expecting the seats to be filled is not enough. Musicians now need to engage as well as educate the community to create an audience!
Lionel Tan: We are running out of time to find the next quartet. There are a few players out there that have the right mind set but not four that can make a quartet’s combination of instruments. But never know when the stars align and you get 4 like minded and commuted souls.
How would you describe the classical music scene in Singapore today? How has it changed since the T’ang Quartet started and what needs to change moving forward?
Leslie Tan: There are a lot more local musicians and a lot more performing groups now and there is the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music – I never thought I would see that in my lifetime! Those are really exciting and wonderful developments. But on the flip side, Singaporeans being Singaporeans, many parents still want their kids to pursue a less creative career path. Creativity is not valued in Singapore. We talk about it but many shy away from it.
What advice would you give to aspiring classical musicians, both in Singapore and abroad?
Lionel Tan: Go for it! Too many people work with ambition and fear but without passion in this world. Don’t add to that.
Leslie Tan: Only you can make the change! Do it now! Don’t worry about tomorrow!
Ang Chek Meng: Practice like you are performing and perform like you are practicing! This was the best piece of advice my mentor Jiri Heger impressed upon me! It is absolutely true if you want to be a performer. I used to suffer from terrible stage fright because there was always this pressure to not make mistakes. You can always be more prepared for a performance but as long as you have prepared well, you should just get on stage and enjoy sharing with the audience!
The Schulhoff Quartet is one audience don’t see programmed too often. Tell us a little bit about this work.
Lionel Tan: It has dark elements but at the same time some humour almost black comedy-ish. It reveals the author’s frame of mind when he wrote this work as he sat captive in the concentration camps of the Nazis.
Any words of wisdom for newcomers to classical music?
Ng Yu-Ying: Embrace it with an open heart. Just like life…it can be full of surprises if you just allow it!
Lionel Tan: To quote ourselves 21 yrs ago – “if we can enjoy Metallica, you can enjoy classical music.” Music is about entertainment!