Award Winners in Concert – An Interview with Past Award Winners of the Goh Soon Tioe Centenary Award

Established in 2011 to commemorate the birth centenary of Singapore’s pioneer music pedagogue, accomplished violinist, conductor and impresario Goh Soon Tioe, the Goh Soon Tioe Centenary Award strives to create opportunities for outstanding young musicians. Administered by the Community Foundation of Singapore, the $10,000 Award recognises string musicians who have consistently demonstrated exceptional musicianship and performance. 

To mark the 10th anniversary of the Award and commemorate Goh Soon Tioe @110, a concert featuring past Award winners will be presented later this month, with past winners, Joey Lau (violin), Julian Li (double bass), Kevin Loh (guitar), Theophilus Tan (cello) and Helena Dawn Yah (violin), playing with pianist Jonathan Shin.

The Flying Inkpot talks to three Goh Soon Tioe Centenary Awardees – Julian Li (2013, Double Bass), Kevin Loh (2018, Guitar) and Joelle Hsu (2019, Viola) – to find out more about the impact that the Award has had on their musical career and their plans for the future.

[This interview has been edited for publication purposes]

By Aileen Tang

The Flying Inkpot: First of all, how has winning the Goh Soon Tioe Centenary Award had an impact on your musical journey?

Julian Li: The award played such a significant role in my musical journey. It not only supported my studies financially such as in living expenses, instrument maintenance and transportations – which took the load off my worries so I could focus on my studies – but it has also instilled in me a greater sense of responsibility and the goal to strive harder so that I can contribute back to the music scene in Singapore.  

Julian Li

I have had great opportunities to meet many wonderful people, especially Ms Vivien Goh (Goh Soon Tioe’s daughter and Cultural Medallion winner), who has been a mentor to me. We’ve kept in touch whenever I come back to Singapore for a short break, and she has constantly given me advice. 

Joelle Hsu: Winning the award has given me many opportunities. Firstly, it allowed me to hold my own personal recital, which I believe that I would not have been able to do until much later into my musical studies at Yong Siew Toh Conservatory. In addition, I have been introduced to a new community of musicians in Singapore – past winners of the award. Through rehearsals with them – many of whom are already professional musicians – I have picked up many good habits and musical ideas. Due to its prestige, the award has also given me more recognition in the local music scene due, for which I am grateful!

Joelle Hsu

Kevin Loh: Like Joelle, the award gave me the incredible opportunity to perform my first ever solo guitar recital in Singapore. On my birthday to boot! It was a really meaningful experience for me, as it served as an important landmark of what I had experienced through my musical journey up to that point, as well as hopefully many other exciting opportunities that life has in store.

The financial support from the Award has also given me many opportunities to participate in various guitar festivals and competitions in other parts of the world, as well as helping to reduce costs on music resources.

Last but not least, it feels like I’ve been welcomed into a wonderful family of musicians. Everyone has been incredibly friendly and warm, so it has been a huge pleasure to get to know the other winners over the years and make music together. 

TFI: The concert on 18 April is bringing together some of the past winners. Do you have any interesting nuggets to share about any of them whom you’ve collaborated with?

JL: Prior to this concert, I played with Joey, Joelle and Theophillius separately in various orchestras during the Covid-19 period: Joey and I were in the Asian Culture Symphony Orchestra (ACSO) recently for a video recording, Joelle and I in the Orchestra of the Music Makers (OMM) for a few concerts, and Theophilus and I recently performed in a concert with re:Sound.

JH: It’s been really enjoyable working with them! Everyone has been really friendly and welcoming. I have been working closely with Joey, Theophilus and Julian as we prepare for the concert and rehearsals have been extremely productive.

During our quartet rehearsals, I am always in awe of how Julian manages to play all the running high notes and chords on the double bass as I have never seen anything like that before! We often laugh at how busy he looks playing the part but with that being said, he plays the technically challenging part really well so do stay tuned for the concert to see it!

KL: It just so happens that Dawn (Helena Dawn Yah – the inaugural winner of the GSTA) and I were schoolmates together at The Yehudi Menuhin School in the UK! We were even in the same class for Mandarin lessons, although we never got to collaborate during our time at Menuhin. However, we finally had the opportunity to perform together at the Esplanade Concourse back in 2018, and I look forward to the next opportunity!

Kevin Loh (credit: Singapore Symphony Orchestra)

With Julian, we first got to work together in a chamber music project, and since then we have been working to put some duets together. The combination of double bass and guitar is a very rare one, so the creative process has been a really enjoyable experience and we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the reception towards some YouTube videos that we recently released! 

TFI: Can you share with us how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected your work and life? 

JL: It led me to decide to relocate back to Singapore so that I could join my family here after being away since 2012, and at the same time allowing me to take a short break after working constantly in China. It is always great to be home and seeing familiar people while meeting new friends to make music together.

JH: Like for many others, it has definitely brought about many inconveniences. Being used to a busy performance schedule, Covid-19 meant that many large projects and events were (and are still being) cancelled or postponed. These projects are what I really love and enjoy participating in being a musician, so I miss it very much. However, we stay hopeful that these opportunities will return in the near future!

As a student, it meant that learning was compromised to a certain extent since lessons – including major lessons – were conducted online. Although I am grateful that technology has allowed us to remain connected, adjusting to online lessons was certainly not the easiest due to the initial lags and poorer quality of audio and visuals. However, being a more introverted person, I also feel that communicating during lessons and meetings online made me more comfortable with communicating with others.

Since I do some freelance teaching in my free time as well, I had the opportunity to teach my students – most of which are younger children – through Zoom. While it was certainly initially not easy to get hold of their attention through this online teaching, I got more used to it and used creative methods to engage them during lessons. 

KL: The pandemic has certainly affected my university studies quite significantly. For most of the pandemic, I was actually back in Singapore due to the heightened situation in the UK at the time, although I was back in Cambridge for one semester where I was essentially studying from my accommodation. Dealing with the differences in time zones and not being able to access the typical faculty resources has been challenging, but the faculty staff have been really helpful in providing as much support as possible. 

Apart from my studies, I’ve always been practising my guitar indoors anyway, so there actually hasn’t been much of a change there. However, many live concerts that were planned in the UK and Europe have naturally been disrupted, either postponed or cancelled altogether. But as some doors close, various new ones open too. Lots of opportunities to do more video recordings and virtual concerts emerged, and it has been a great way to reach and expand to different audiences across the world who would not normally have the chance to hear you live in concert.

TFI: Kevin mentioned the many opportunities for virtual concerts arising from the pandemic situation. What are some of the positive experiences and insights that you have each gained from the past 12 months?

JL: I was able to practise more at home during the Circuit Breaker period and made some mini digital concerts, some of them were with Kevin. It also gave me the chance to explore new repertoire that has rarely been played in Singapore. I also collaborated with bassists around the world for some Bass chamber videos to promote Bass repertoire as well as took the chance to build friendships with them. I am currently taking online lessons with Professor Thomas Martin from Birmingham Conservatoire to keep on learning the Double Bass and its repertoire.

KL: Personally, I think I share some of the sentiments expressed by other musicians who have found that this extended period off the concert stage has allowed for more personal time and space, as well as more opportunities for self-reflection and discovery. I certainly have spent some time exploring a wider variety of repertoire than usual!

In addition, the various virtual opportunities I mentioned earlier also included virtual guitar competitions that might not have been as accessible under normal circumstances. As a result, I was very fortunate to receive two prizes in 2020, namely the 1st prize at the London International Guitar Competition, as well as the 2nd prize at the Altamira International Virtual Guitar Competition. 

JH: In the past 12 months, musicians have all been forced to find new ways of doing things – from collaborating to different ways of presenting our music. As much as a single musician can already express a lot, I feel that what makes music so unique is the way musicians work together and gather various ideas from each other to create something even bigger and better. As such, I believe that many have come up with creative means to do so- from putting together videos recorded remotely to doing orchestral recordings on end. 

I also believe that this “pause” in our lives, especially during the circuit breaker period last year gave us time to rest and spend time with our loved ones, something that was rarer in my life before Covid-19 happened. I managed to spend more of my time cooking and baking at home with my family! The time at home also gave me more time to practise more and experiment with new techniques, which has really helped with my playing.

TFI: You’ve all mentioned being involved in digital concerts, so what has been your most memorable performance – digital or live – during this Covid period?

JL: As many performances had been cancelled, I decided to try making videos to share music and collaborate with friends. Even though it is different from the live performances where performers can be more direct to the audiences while performing, digital productions have made me appreciate technological advancement in a new light. I have a Bass Chamber group – Bass Around Asia – which was supposed to perform live in Singapore in August 2020 but it was cancelled due to Covid-19, so we made some videos together from our homes in Taiwan and Singapore. Another memorable digital production was Beethoven Symphony 9 conducted by Kahchun Wong and recorded by various musicians from around the world. The process of recording the whole fourth movement was tedious but the results were amazing. 

KL: I am very fortunate to have had various experiences with digital productions early on. Therefore, I was in a more stable position to continue what I was already doing, such as recording for my YouTube channel or for social media.

The classical music narrative is constantly changing, especially in Singapore. We continuously strive to better showcase its relevance within our society, and I am heartened to see that the pandemic has encouraged more people to embrace digital transformation as a powerful tool that allows us to reach new audiences and raise greater awareness of classical music as a genre as well as a movement.

A particularly memorable performance was an online concert held at the Victoria Concert Hall, organized by Lianhe Zaobao during the circuit breaker. I had the pleasure to work with musicians like conductor Kahchun Wong, as well as violinist Loh Jun Hong and pianist Abigail Sin from More than Music amongst others. It felt incredibly surreal leaving the house when people were not supposed to. Arriving at Victoria Concert Hall was equally strange as the entire CBD area was deserted! Once we got to recording the footage for the online concert, I honestly surprised myself by how excited I was when we were allowed on stage. Having not performed live in so long, it was a really incredible feeling, and so this particular concert was definitely one of the most memorable performances during the pandemic, if not ever!

JH: I feel that digital productions certainly cannot replace the feeling of performing or attending a concert live. From the performer’s point of view, live concerts really give me a higher sense of morale as we are able to experience the audience’s appreciation and enjoyment of the music we put out first-hand. Despite having high musical integrity during all performances, I feel more stressed during recordings as most recordings can be accessed at any time by anyone in the future, so I feel that the need to be as “perfect” as possible is much higher. This results in much more time and energy being put into recording sessions.

As an audience, though I appreciate that orchestras all over the world – including major orchestras such as the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra – are making their recordings more accessible, I feel that it is completely different than watching a performance in real life. In a live performance, there are many nuances that can be felt – the energy between performers, the interaction between players and audience and more which is difficult to be conveyed via a digital platform.

Despite this, I am still grateful that our music can still be shared with others during this time, which is something I never imagined would be possible. And I am proud that the music industry has worked around these issues together and stayed united during this difficult time. 

One of the most memorable experiences for me was recording a bit of the Sperger quartet with Julian, Joey and Theophilus because it was something that I had not experienced before! For most remote recordings, there often would be a click track of some sort to follow such that everyone would line up metronomically. However, for the quartet, we were unable to use a click track as it would have disrupted the flow of music. Hence, we had to layer on top of each other’s playing and it was quite challenging to adjust to the little nuances initially. Though the end product was not entirely perfect, we were still rather pleased with the outcome!

TFI: Can you share with us some of your plans and aspirations for the future?

JH: I hope to be able to work full-time in a professional orchestra as playing orchestral music is really my passion. It is amazing to see how each individual in the orchestra works together to create such big works. Besides that, I also hope to give back to the community by teaching. I love working with children as they actually teach me a lot too, from how to be patient with them to solving issues or experimenting with different teaching methods since each student learns differently.

JL: I feel the importance of nurturing the next generation of musicians – especially double bass students – and promoting the double bass repertoire. As a philosopher Daisaku Ikeda said, “One tall tree does not make a forest. Unless other trees grow to the same height, you cannot have a large grove.” I hope to be able to share what I have learnt on the virtuosity of double bass with as many young aspiring musicians as possible, so that they will be able to see and appreciate its beauty, even if some things may seem insignificant at first.

KL: As I wrap up my academic music degree at the University of Cambridge, I look forward to reverting to guitar performance when I pursue my Masters. I am also planning to study further for a doctorate, as well as gain more teaching experience and performing opportunities, before eventually returning to Singapore to help strengthen guitar pedagogy within the region, as well as give back to the cultural scene in Singapore.

GOH SOON TIOE @ 110: AWARD WINNERS IN CONCERT is on Sunday 18 April 2021, 7.30pm at the Esplanade Recital Studio. Please email for ticket enquiries.

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