Theatres on the Bay, Singapore

Lifelong Arts Engagement: Music programming at Esplanade

When Esplanade Theatres on the Bay opened in 2002, we were very clear that as Singapores national performing arts centre, we would be more than just an arts venue. We wanted to help make the arts an important part of peoples lives. To do that, our programmes needed to connect with the countrys diverse audiences, we needed to make the arts accessible for everyone to enjoy, and we also had to nurture audiences of all ages and backgrounds to engage with the diversity of arts and culture.
As a young nation, we are still developing our arts and cultural identities. Esplanade is only 11 years old and very much in our infancy. As we begin our second decade, our belief and purpose have not changed. In fact, it has become even more compelling. We take a broad approach to developing our audience and building lifelong arts engagement - to expose, engage and deepen. This is a multi-layered effort given that Singapore has a rich multi- cultural and multi-ethnic social milieu. Through our programmes, we purposefully create a wide spectrum of opportunities for people of different levels of interest to participate and engage in the arts.

Exposing Audiences to Diverse Artistic Expressions

To do this, we have to provide audiences access and to expose them to different types of artistic expressions, both contemporary and traditional. This, we hope, will enable them to better appreciate what is presented and to gain a greater understanding of the art form in the process. At the core of it all, we hope to enthrall, move and inspire our audience. All these are integral to what we do at Esplanade.

In this article, we will use our approach towards music programming to show how we try to realize our aspirations. The eclectic range of music we present, in both open and closed spaces at the Esplanade, for both the seasoned and uninitiated, best illustrates this. From the sounds of original songs performed by Singapores artists at the public spaces of the centre, the pulsating rhythms of the bands at Baybeats, the vibrance of Chinese music, to the contemplative music inspired by religious faiths at Tapestry of Sacred Music, we aim to programme for a range of age groups, demographics and interests.

By being adventurous with our music programming, we aim to demystify music and open up the minds of the audience. As a case in point, we can look at our annual Chinese festival Huayi. Now in its 12th year, it is recognised as one of Esplanades annual signature events and has since become internationally known for presenting some of the most dynamic forms of Chinese artistic expression. The music line-up in the most recent edition included Chinese classical, fusion, film music and indie rock.

The Festival featured Nanyin music (literally translated as "the music of the South"), a traditional opera sung in the south Fujian that has existed more than 1,000 years. It is considered to be the most ancient musical art form in China, and amongst the oldest and best preserved musical art forms in the world. The performance, by Siong Leng Musical Association, blended these ancient sounds with contemporary theatrical elements, creating a dialogue between the past and the present. This was followed by a post performance talk to further engage the audience.

Additionally, the Singapore Chinese Orchestra performed a new score to a screening of a classic silent film The Goddess starring the late Ruan Lingyu, a famous Chinese actress from the 1930s. Scored by composers Law Wai Lun from Singapore and Lincoln Lo from Hong Kong, the audiences were moved to a standing ovation. A screening of a non-western film with live music accompaniment by a full-size Chinese Orchestra is a fairly new and uncommon concept in Singapore. We attempted this to make Chinese music accessible in order to attract new audiences. Specially prepared teachers and students resource kits and house programme notes were available online at the festivals website to provide more depth and insight.

Engaging Participation

We value getting individuals, community groups, and schools intimately involved as active participants at the Esplanade, and we constantly broaden the opportunities for as many young people to participate in the arts as possible. For example, Esplanades Limelight series gives some of the best secondary schools and junior colleges choirs and symphonic bands in Singapore the opportunity to perform at the Esplanade Concert Hall, one of the worlds best acoustically designed concert halls.

In doing so, we aim to inspire excellence in performance amongst the schools, to enable students to take their art and musicianship to the next level. Interest and awareness of the series has been growing steadily amongst the schools. To be invited to perform at Limelight has now become an aspiration for many aspiring musicians in Singapore. What started as a modest series that featured three schools in the first year, has expanded to about 12 to 15 schools a year. To date, some 39 schools have participated over the last 7 years, and some 12,000 students turn up each year to support their schools performances.

Music exposure programmes have always featured prominently in our Feed Your Imagination (FYI), a series of arts education programmes targeting at schools in Singapore. Geared at students between 7 and 16, this years music programmes include an original animated film accompanied by a Chinese instrumental ensemble to introduce Chinese woodwind instruments, and a contemporary fusion music presentation that introduces a variety of traditional Asian instruments such as the Chinese pipa, Indian bansuri, Indonesian angklung and Malay gambus. Pre- and post-show resource materials for both students and teachers are made available for all FYI programmes.

Lifelong engagement in the arts is not limited to just students. Last year, the centennial year of Stravinskys The Rite of Spring by Russian composer Stravinsky, saw us collaborate with two local companies The Philharmonic Orchestra and the Arts Fission Company, to stage the iconic work with a modern interpretation re-titled The Rite of Spring: A Peoples Stravinsky.

The project was aptly titled, as it brought together close to 200 people the elderly, children, dance students, volunteer photographers and seamstresses with professional musicians and dancers. We witnessed various communities coming together, regardless of age and background, deeply committed to the roles they played in the production. Rehearsals were held at a local school whereby students were invited to attend, and dialogues with the artists to better understand the work and its creative process were organised.

Prior to this project, the Arts Fission Company mentioned earlier on had been engaging the elderly at a daycare centre in a process of creating art and movement, on a regular basis. The Rite of Spring A Peoples Stravinsky allowed the artists to also share and discuss Stravinsky and his music to them, in preparation for their role as elders in the performance. This was a milestone in many ways as most of the elderly had little or no exposure to western classical music at all, let alone Stravinskys music.

Deepening our Engagement with our Public

To further deepen our engagement with the public, we organise a range of exposure programmes to develop our audiences appreciation of the music we present. For example, A Tapestry of Sacred Music was started in 2009 to celebrate the diverse sounds, colours and moods of sacred music to be enjoyed in a secular environment.

We recognise that several of these cultures are unfamiliar to the majority of the audience, particularly the younger generation. We are conscious that context is important and that our audiences should leave with more knowledge and understanding of what they have heard. To help them join the dots, we include a range of accessible activities; non-ticketed performances, talks on related topics, master-classes, and explorations workshops that cater to the public. We opened Tapestry this year with Barong: Ritual Theatre of Bali by Pinda Sari from Indonesia. This was supported by a Balinese music and dance workshop, and a talk on the ritual arts of Bali.

Although early music traditions of the west is relatively unknown in Singapore, we introduced early music expert Jordi Savalls Jerusalem to the audience in the same Festival, as we felt it was a culturally and artistically important musical experience. As part of our efforts to deepen our audiences engagement, we also invited Jordi Savall to speak on the topic Music, History and Intercultural Dialogue, and also organised two other talks about baroque music, and the holy city of Jerusalem and its significance.

Ultimately, our belief to expose, engage and deepen guides and shapes not only what is presented but also how it is being done. This philosophy extends to the way we use our facilities. We have sought to adapt and maximise the acoustical and physical potential of our spaces, particularly the Concert Hall. The Concert Halls flexibility of performance production systems and adjustable acoustic systems has allowed it to provide for a wide range of music performances with the same level of acoustic quality. From the onset, we broke free of the conventional use of the space, with exciting outcomes. Carnatic vocal legend Bombay Jayashri in a concert featuring a mix of folk, carnatic, hindustani, thumri, bhajans, film and ghazals, and a Persian music and poetry concert by Hamid Reza Nourbakhsh from Iran are two such examples. Our approach has been both evolutionary and revolutionary and while it is still early days yet for a young venue, the outcomes have been very encouraging.

Today, we have built a year-round calendar of events comprising 15 Festivals and 21 Series. We have welcomed more than 75 million visitors, staged more than 25,000 performances attended by about 18.5 million people. We continually look to new and better ways both offline and online, to stay relevant, to engage our audiences, to build artist capabilities and to immerse our diverse communities in the arts.

This exciting journey continues.
An article by Chua Lik Ling. For further information see: esplanade
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