A collaborative pianist who helped the YST Conservatory find its own voice
As his fingers flew over the keyboard of the glistening Steinway grand piano parked in the corner of his office, Professor Bernard Lanskey seemed to have ascended into a higher plane of existence.
Eyes closed and body swaying in rhythm to melodious tunes of Franz Schubert’s formidably difficult Fantasy in C for Violin and Piano, perhaps this is what the pianist meant when he said that performance should be a “heightened experience of life”.
“Such a pity that I can’t bring this piano with me when I leave. It’s one of the best instruments I’ve ever practised on, thanks to the care of our piano technician Eddie Low.” he later said with a smile.
After 14 years as Dean of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music (YST Conservatory), he will be stepping down in July and becoming Director at Australia’s Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University.
Like his own experiences on the piano, he has also brought YST Conservatory to greater heights over the years. The Australian educator is leaving an institution that has become one of the world’s most distinctive music schools. Scores of his former students have become established leaders in their fields. The school has forged strong bonds within the university community and the public, greatly boosting Singapore’s local arts scene.
All of these milestones have come under Prof Lanskey’s watch. “The direction has become quite clear,” he said. “As the Conservatory has established itself within Singapore over the past decade, our understanding of excellence has become more nuanced so that local and global dimensions intertwine ever more authentically.”
Coming of age
When he was first appointed to lead the Conservatory in 2008, YST was a young school focused on laying its foundations as a music institution – aided by the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, USA. It had already begun to have presence, not least due to incredible support from founding donors including in particular the Yong Loo Lin Trust.
But if it wanted to be recognisable in its own right, he knew that the school needed to evolve its own identity. “We needed to become more distinctly us,” he explained. “What’s extraordinary about this project is that it’s unique in Asia in terms of its size and scope, as well as its international mix of student, faculty and global orientation.”
“In addition, for Singaporean students, they don’t have to leave Singapore to get a full exposure to global artistic possibilities. Major musical figures like András Schiff, Shlomo Mintz, Leon Fleisher, Nobuko Imai, Gábor Takács-Nagy and Masaaki Suzuki – as well as ensembles such as the Takacs and Juilliard Quartets and the Aurora Orchestra – have graced our Concert Hall and classrooms alike, thanks to gifts such as the Ong Teng Cheong and Madeline Goh Professorships and the Shaw Foundation Ones to Watch series.
“When our students do leave, whether for short-term international projects, semester exchanges with partner schools or overseas summer courses, they are already familiar with international standards and receive Conservatory support to pursue these further student artistic development opportunities.”
Prof Lanskey’s arrival also coincided with the school being ready to chart its own path. Tapping on his vast musical experience spanning over 25 years, he expanded YST Conservatory’s global reach as it became a member of various alliances. For example, it joined the ConNext Network which also features esteemed schools across Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia. YST is also part of the Southeast Asian Directors of Music (SEADOM) association – which Prof Lanskey had a key role in founding – and holds associate membership in the European Association of Conservatoires (AEC), in which he serves as representative for non-European schools. On the musical front, YST released an album, Moór doubles Brahms, featuring its Conservatory Orchestra and three of its faculty, on international label Cello Classics.
Closer to home, YST Conservatory’s prominence and connections grew. It fostered ties with the local community, collaborating with iconic establishments such as the Esplanade and Victoria Concert Hall, forging performance series at the National Gallery and Asian Civilisations Museum, and working with organisations such as Sengkang General Hospital, the National University Hospital and Superhero Me.
The school’s alumni also began making names for themselves as performers, composers, conductors, educators, audio engineers, producers and cross-disciplinary artists locally and globally. Success stories include conductor Wong Kah Chun, composers Diana Soh and Emily Koh, and prominent groups such as the Lorong Boys and Red Dot Baroque. Over 10 YST alumni play full-time in the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, and graduates hold positions in ensembles such as the New Zealand String Quartet, Decoda (the United States), the Verbier Chamber Orchestra (Switzerland), as well as a range of orchestras across China, the United States and Southeast Asia.
YST Conservatory also underwent a rebranding. In 2016, it conceptualised a new guiding tagline – Listen in New Light – that encouraged students to explore new ways of presenting their craft and music. “At the core of the repositioning was an emphasis on each student finding distinctive identity through experimentation and discovery. It doesn’t always have to be perfect. This explorative dimension is also artistically vital,” he said.
This culminated in several moments that Prof Lanskey described as a “coming of age” for the school. In 2018, Conservatory alumni boldly curated and presented Voyage, a week-long music festival featuring more than 70 YST graduates in concerts incorporating multidisciplinary elements and striking multimedia visuals. In 2019, the graduating cohort staged a full-blown production at the Victoria Concert Hall. Titled Springing, the result was a cutting-edge immersive musical performance that included video, lighting and story-telling elements. This established a tradition leading to the recent and equally-successful Unmask by the 2021 cohort.
“I thought these events were beautifully artistic,” said Prof Lanskey, the recording producer and director behind numerous international festivals. “Although the productions aligned with the spirit imagined in our rebranding, the outcomes were totally owned by the students and alumni. Each group pushed their boundaries further than we dared push them – I could not have predicted what either of them did.”
Running a school during a pandemic
Amidst this energetic trajectory, one of the toughest challenges of Prof Lanskey’s tenure came when the COVID-19 pandemic struck last year. The School had to re-orient digitally almost overnight.
YST began livestreaming all its concerts. Where before, even its largest live audience was around 500, the livestreamed concerts now often attracted over a thousand viewers. A recent streaming hit more than 5,000 views, while Unmask was also well-received.
Prof Lanskey saw further opportunity within the crisis, reimagining strategic orientation and encouraging greater reflection, student agency, and technological innovation. “There’s some wonderful irony in the circumstance. Despite us being closed, we’ve never reached out more,” he said.
“Everything we do now is being reflected outwards. There’s virtually something going on every day of the month, and all of it is made readily available online regardless of time and distance. The students too seem more critically reflective and collaborative in their practice.”
The pandemic also saw him taking up two new hobbies – biking and hiking – which have since become more central in his current daily life. “Both activities give me space to think,” says the avid cyclist who frequents the Southern Ridges and regularly climbs Bukit Timah Hill. “It’s very much like playing a piece. The route might be the same, but the experience of the journey can be constantly changing,” he said.
As he prepares to leave Singapore, he voices gratitude to Conservatory faculty, staff and alumni for their immense contributions in shaping YST’s evolution. “Over these years, I have been thankful for the support and dedication of so many people on this journey. Everyone has been amazingly open, reimagining themselves and how they might contribute distinctively and authentically to the Conservatory. It has felt like a constantly-evolving creative ensemble where all of us have grown in presence. Looking back, it is extraordinary to realise how far we have travelled together.”
For students, he offers the following advice: To trust their own voice and capacity to find balance, that they might dare to be brave. And above all, to listen and be in tune with themselves, those around them and the world. “We need to connect and collaborate, but each of us also finds our own way. Be open also to experimenting, and to discovering new forms of excellence.”
MILESTONES UNDER PROF LANSKEY
2008: Prof Bernard Lanskey appointed as Director of YST Conservatory. With the support of the National Arts Council (Singapore), YST Conservatory establishes the Young Artist Programme.
2009: YST Conservatory holds Performer’s Voice, its first international research symposium. YST joins SEADOM, a network for the advancement of Southeast Asian music education, as one of its founding members with Prof Lanskey appointed as its first President soon after.
2010: YST Conservatory introduces the Recording Arts & Sciences Major (now known as Audio Arts & Sciences), alongside existing majors in instrumental performance and composition.
2011: YST Conservatory introduces the Joint Degree – the first programme of its kind – with the Peabody Institute. It also introduces the Voice Major.
2014: YST Conservatory begins offering Singapore’s first ever Master in Music programme in the fields of performance, composition and conducting. The Conservatory is welcomed into the ConNext network.
2016: YST Conservatory undergoes a significant rebranding with a new logo and tagline: Listen in New Light.
2018: YST Conservatory introduces majors in Music & Society and Music, Collaboration & Production.
2020: YST Conservatory launches the Continuing Education & Training courses to help adult learners hone their skillsets in music and other arts-related fields – with further ambitions towards added graduate pathways and involvement in performing and creative arts across NUS