Let’s Start at the Very Beginning – An Interview with Loh Jun Hong and Abigail Sin of ‘More Than Music’ | The Flying Inkpot
A decade is no mean feat for any chamber group in Singapore, especially in this day and age when the classical music scene is constantly welcoming newcomers to its increasingly busy stage. It is a happy issue for audiences but also means a potentially smaller slice of the pie for musicians. One music series (as they call themselves) that has not only survived but thrived – evidenced by a growing list of guest musicians to have played with them – is More Than Music which celebrates its 10th Anniversary this year. Founded by violin and piano duo Loh Jun Hong and Abigail Sin – both celebrated musicians in their own right – the series has expanded its repertoire while staying true to its initial mission of presenting concerts “where people can enjoy themselves, bring friends and basically just spread the word that chamber music is really, really cool” (Abigail Sin in an interview with TFI in May 2022).
The Flying Inkpot: Let’s go back to the beginning! How did the idea for this series of concerts come about
and how did it actually get started?
Abigail Sin: We started talking about starting More Than Music in 2012, 2013 just as we were returning to Singapore after our Masters studies. We had many goals and motivations for starting More Than Music. We wanted to create concert experiences that would tear down the stuffy stereotypes of boring classical music concerts, and instead establish an environment that is both inviting and exciting. We wanted to present music that we are passionate about to audiences in a way that would help them to personally engage with and enjoy the music. We also wanted to build a vibrant chamber music community with some of the best musicians in Singapore and the region.
Loh Jun Hong: My first concert performed with introductions and storytelling was actually my graduation recital at Juilliard! I knew back then that I wanted to start a concert series that was focused on what we loved best about music – the connection between people and the sharing of ideas and emotions. Soon after I finished at New York, Abigail and I sat down and started planning for our first More than Music concert, “Once Upon a Time”, which was presented in December 2013. It was so lovely: we had our intimate-styled concert and even booked the restaurant next to the Recital Studio – NineThirty by Awfully Chocolate – for our after-party where all our audience members enjoyed little titbits while hanging out.
For me, it all started out because I wanted more people to love and enjoy classical music the way we do. The way I see it, classical music is very much like wine. When we taste it for the first time, it’s bitter, it’s acidic – why would anyone pay good money to drink this? But after trying it numerous times, among great company, learning and exploring the various flavour profiles, and sampling the different distinct features of each grape, we begin to enjoy and indulge in great wine. And that’s exactly what I wanted to create – a concert series that will be the perfect first-time experience for classical music lovers to bring their “non-classical music” friends to, to enjoy great music, great company, and explore emotions and passion in an intimate and engaging atmosphere.
TFI: What were your goals and how far do you think you have come in achieving them?
LJH: “World-class music, up close and personal”. This is our little motto and the two central pillars of the series. Firstly, as musicians, we aim for the highest level of artistry; at the same time, we aim to create meaningful connections with audiences, and concerts that audiences will remember and look forward to. I think More than Music has come a long way since we first began, but just like our never-ending quest to become better artists, we will continue to strive towards even more memorable and inspiring concerts.
AS: I am personally most grateful for the amazing musicians who have performed with us over the last 10 years, including some of our former teachers as well as old and new friends. The inspiring level of music-making is what keeps us going and motivates us to keep innovating and improving. We’ve done some bucket list pieces over the last few years, including the Beethoven Violin Sonatas Project in 2020 and the Archduke Trio in 2022, which was a personal highlight for me.
TFI: Have there been goals that you have decided to put aside for the time being?
LJH: There have been various project ideas that we have talked about that are still brewing – things like adding more production elements to the concerts, for example. We always want to do more, but we want to make sure that we are adding elements that will enhance the musical experience, and not distract from it. I remember from the very beginning, I have been infatuated with the Classical Kids CDs. Stories like “Beethoven Lives Upstairs” have stayed with me even to this day. The CD curated snippets of music by Beethoven and paired them with a narration of a story, enhancing the experience of both the music as well as the story. One of the ideas I wanted to do was exactly this – creating an overarching story over the duration of the concert, and I hope one day we’ll be able to bring that to fruition!
TFI: What has been the greatest challenge in these past 10 years?
LJH: Artistically, the biggest challenge was our new music and animation paired with the narration of “On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl” by Japanese author Haruki Murakami. The idea for it was born from the storytelling and music idea that I mentioned we had wanted to do. At first, we were thinking of getting a writer to write something that will be possible to programme music around, but we wanted to be sure that the text was artistic and profound enough rather than a simple tale. That was when we decided on using one of Murakami’s works and composing new music to fit its text. It was my first time being part of the creation process, working on decisions like redactions of the texts, choosing which portions were central to the story, working on the interplay between music and narration, whether important words and phrases should be exclamations, whether the words should be accompanied by music, or when the emotion and music were so strong that we did not need words to express the story.
Logistically, the hardest concerts were our More than Music & Wine concerts – which we’ll be bringing back in the latter half of this year! Working with our wine partner and having a sommelier onboard, pairing wines with music, smoothening out issues like how to distribute wine and refill glasses, and converting concert seating to cocktail standing tables all contributed to a steep but very fulfilling learning experience.
AS: We have a very small team – it’s just Jun Hong and me running all the administrative tasks (ticketing, grant proposals, venue booking, talking to potential new partners, marketing, scheduling etc) as well as having to rehearse, practice our own parts and juggle our respective day jobs and other musical projects. Developing the skills and personal capacity to juggle these responsibilities, while adapting to changes in the industry and in our personal lives, has been and will probably continue to be the greatest challenge. But this is a challenge that many musicians and freelancers have to deal with.
TFI: Is there something that is still not yet within reach?
LJH: One of the series we look up to is the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York. One day perhaps, we’ll have enough artists on our roster to fill a whole season!
TFI: How have you personally changed – as musicians or otherwise – over the past 10 years?
LJH: I think one of the biggest things that have changed is that 10 years ago, I was the new kid on the block! I had just come back to Singapore after my studies in New York and there was definitely a need to establish my own voice in the scene. Even in terms of repertoire, I remember programming more virtuosic works to showcase a little more of my own abilities. I’m happy that I now feel no need to hog any spotlight, and I enjoy music-making even more when it is shared among the amazing musicians that we are lucky to have onboard with us.
AS: The biggest musical change I’ve had to make over the last 10 years was navigating the transition from being a student to being a working musician, juggling various responsibilities while trying to nourish myself musically. My chamber music partners have been the greatest catalysts for my own musical growth, especially since I’ve left school. I’m very grateful to each one of them for pushing me to be better and for inspiring me with their playing. We’re so lucky to be able to play repertoire that demands our best, humbles us and helps us grow.
Honestly, with the full-time academic teaching job (Ed: Abigail is on the faculty of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music) and collaborative playing, I haven’t given a public solo recital in a while, even though I have some long-term solo playing goals that are still very close to my heart. Perhaps I need to give myself a push out the door for that soon!
TFI: What’s next on the horizon?
LJH: Our upcoming 10th Anniversary Concert will be at the Esplanade Recital Studio, where it all began! This concert will feature our biggest cast of artists yet, bringing back many of the musicians we’ve worked with over the years, and it’ll feature a piece I’ve been longing to perform – Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence!
AS: We’re ticking off more bucket list pieces in June: Strauss [Violin] Sonata and Dvořák F-minor [Piano] Trio. We’re also excited to bring back our popular More Than Music & Wine concerts after having to put that on hold because of Covid. Look out for that in September!
TFI: What has been your favourite part of the journey?
LJH: My favourite part is always meeting the audience after each concert! I am so thankful that our audience partakes in the passion and emotions that we put into the music.
AS: Playing my favourite music with my favourite people!
Tickets for More Than Music’s 10th Anniversary Concert are available from https://morethanmusicanniversary.peatix.com/
Sat 18 and Sun 19 March, 7.30pm
Esplanade Recital Studio
Abigail Sin, Piano
Albert Tiu, Piano
Loh Jun Hong, Violin
Yang Shuxiang, Violin
Zhang Manchin, Viola
Wang Dandan, Viola
Ng Pei-Sian, Cello
Jamshid Saydikarimov, Cello
Brahms: Scherzo from the FAE Sonata
Rachmaninov: Second Suite for 2 Pianos
Tchaikovsky: Souvenir de Florence