Orchestrating a new era: The Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music turns 20
A week-long festival celebrating the classic elegance of Baroque music. An internationally renowned brass quintet backed by full orchestral forces playing famous film scores from hits like Jurassic Park and Star Wars. Mesmerising auditory journeys ranging from a funky fusion of electronic dance music and traditional Chinese music, to classic orchestra masterpieces.
These are some of the exciting events and performances with which the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music (YST) opens the new academic year and its latest concert season this month.
While this celebration of music has traditionally been part of the Conservatory’s calendar, the latest one is extra special. With YST marking its 20th anniversary in 2023, this lineup serves as a curtain raiser for the monumental year ahead.
Titled “Looking back, Moving Forward”, it features two themes: a fond recollection of YST’s past achievements and an exciting glimpse of the future, as the Conservatory prepares students for the fast-changing musical world of the 21st century.
“As musicians, we draw on past traditions but it is also our duty to reshape conventions, explore new expressions and create new possibilities to move music forward,” said YST Dean Professor Peter Tornquist, who described YST’s 20th anniversary as a very special milestone.
“As a conservatory, we seek to do the same through our educational, musical and community offerings.”
A celebration of different tunes
The school is pulling out all the stops to mark the big 2-0, with a roster of illustrious musicians set to perform at its concert hall in the coming months.
Visiting artists include the Calefax Quintet, an ensemble of five reed players from the Netherlands known for musical virtuosity and creative dynamism, and the Boston Brass of the United States, who will lead the YST Orchestral Institute through a collection of film music with their engaging artistry.
After four years, the Voyage Festival – featuring YST alumni – will also return. In a special homecoming, these former students will put on five concerts across two days, featuring a diverse selection of music across all eras and genres.
“The Voyage Festival is an exemplification of how YST is always committed to supporting its alumni and the wider musical community in Singapore and the region,” said alumnus and Red Dot Baroque founder Alan Choo, who will be performing at the festival.
“My hopes for it (YST) at this milestone are that it will continue its forward-thinking approach in providing a rich and broad-based education for new generations of music practitioners,” he added.
From budding school to best in Asia
When it opened in 2003, YST’s priority was to lay a firm foundationas a music institution, particularly in performance and composition. Aided by the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, it started establishing itself as one of Asia’s most exciting conservatories. The ultimate goal: to compose its own tune as a school.
It then began expanding its identity in two areas: international connections and educational offerings for the wider community. The school expanded globally, joining music education networks such as ConNext, the Pacific Alliance of Music Schools, Southeast Asian Directors of Music, International Benchmarking Group and Assocation of European Conservatoires. It introduced new programmes: professionals can now tap YST’s Master of Music, Master of Music Leadership and continuing education programmes to upgrade. Meanwhile, undergraduates can develop broader artistic identities through majors in Music & Society, and Music, Collaboration & Production.
These changes can be summed up by the tagline that YST unveiled in 2016: Listen in New Light. This statement aimed to inspire students to explore new ways of presenting their craft and music. Many of the school’s alumni have since charted unique paths. Among them are notable groups like the Lorong Boys and Red Dot Baroque, and individuals such as Wong Kah Chun, the first Asian chief conductor of Germany’s Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra. Students are active in collaborations with organisations such as Sengkang General Hospital and the Asian Civilisations Museum.
Some have also come full circle by returning to the school. For example, managing director of the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra Low Jia Hua, who was part of the pioneer batch of YST graduates in 2007, is now one of the school’s governing board members.
“What YST has been able to do very well is to become a conduit of choice, through which those of us with the desire and determination to pursue a career in music were able to undertake the specialised training and education to do so,” he said.
In just 20 years, the school has transformed from fledgling conservatory to world-famous institution. Reputed for its contemporary approach, it is one of the world’s most distinctive music schools today. “I have learnt so much more about the possibilities of music during my time here at YST,” said Year 4 Trumpet undergraduate Nuttakamon Supattranont, citing the opportunities to learn from international musicians as an example.
A new symphony begins
The evolution continues as the school enters its third decade.
Under the leadership of Prof Tornquist, YST is orchestrating a new era with scores of changes.
For instance, the school’s Orchestra Hall will be equipped with cutting-edge technology such as sound and broadcast equipment, as it becomes a lab for students to experiment with their craft. Improvisation will also be a key focus for modules moving forward, with an emphasis on honing adaptability.
“Amidst fast-moving global evolutions and industry transformations, we will continue to be a nimble and dynamic institution, nurturing future generations of musical leaders and shaping meaningful development in the wider musical landscape,” said Prof Tornquist.
More lies in store for 2023, including Haydn’s The Creation, performances by T’ang Quartet and the Lorong Boys, and its international artistic research symposium Performers(‘) Present in October.
“We will keep forging ahead, inspired by the confidence and youthful energy that we see in our students and graduates.”
A MELODY THAT CONTINUES TO UNFOLD
Dr Tony Tan, then Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister, envisioned a conservatory in Singapore thriving within a university, with a concurrent focus on both artistic and academic excellence.
Witnessed by Dr Tony Tan, NUS and the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University signed an agreement to develop Singapore’s national conservatory.
Dr Steven Baxter, former Dean at the Peabody Institute, was appointed Founding Director of the YST Conservatory. Under the Charter by the Ministry of Education (Singapore), the Conservatory’s Governing Board was established, chaired by Mr Goh Yew Lin.
The YST Conservatory welcomed its inaugural class of undergraduate students.
The Conservatory building at 3 Conservatory Drive was officially opened.
Prof Bernard Lanskey, former Associate Director of Music at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, was appointed Director of Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music. With the support of the National Arts Council (Singapore), YST established the Young Artist Programme.
YST Conservatory introduces the Joint Degree – the first programme of its kind – with the Peabody Institute.
The Master in Music programme, with a further major in Conducting, was offered.
Two new majors, Music & Society and Music, Collaboration & Production were introduced, opening up new pathways for students to define distinct and multi-faceted artistic identities.
YST launches Continuing Education & Training course offerings, opening up avenues for adult learners to hone professional skillsets and pursue further qualifications at the Conservatory.
YST launches the Master of Music Leadership, which is designed to support musicians in evolving with the 21st-century landscape and leading developments in the music industry,
Prof Peter Tornquist, former Principal of the Norwegian Academy of Music, was appointed Dean.
The Conservatory will officially mark its 20th anniversary, continuing a trajectory of dynamism and growth in its mission to nurture musicians and shape the higher music education landscape.