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Epoch Times, Singapore Edition (Issue 494, Sept 5 – Sept 18, 2014)
By Li Yen
Epoch Times Staff
“Music is a prism through which we can view our world and a portal to dream of other ones,” says Abigail Sin, one of Singapore’s most noteworthy young pianists.
At 14, she was enrolled in the Bachelor of Music programme at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, National University of Singapore. Once named “the piano prodigy” by the media, Abigail, now 22, has become an elegant and refined lady.
From rehearsing a concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and participating in various music competitions, to watching Shakespeare and improvising with actors, her years of education at Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London had been an eye-opening and fulfilling experience which has nurtured her to be a more polished pianist.
Having won numerous significant accolades at international piano competitions in Europe, the United States and Asia, and chosen by Steinway and Sons as South-East Asia’s first Young Steinway Artist, the well-travelled pianist has performed in concerts halls in the USA, UK, Canada, France, Germany, Lithuania, Ukraine, Romania, Hong Kong and South-East Asia.
Now, the accomplished young pianist wants to bring classical music to the general audience in a more enjoyable way. She and violinist Loh Jun Hong started ‘More Than Music’, intending to change the mindset that classical music is boring. Audiences can expect to listen to their candid and personal stories in the concerts.
“More Than Music concerts feel more like a big house party, rather than a traditional recital,” she adds.
A recipient of the Lee Kuan Yew Scholarship, Abigail will be pursuing her doctoral studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London this month.
Before leaving for London, Abigail will be playing at More Than Music’s upcoming concert entitled Play! at the Esplanade Recital Studio on September 9.
“I will also be curating and performing a series of concerts and lecture recitals over the next few years to complement my doctoral research,” conveys the pianist, who is extremely moved by Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.
This heart-rending yet radiant piece was composed by Messiaen when he was detained in a Nazi prison camp during the Second World War.
“Out of those devastating conditions, Messiae n spoke powerfully of ancient prophecies, eternal paradise and a world that would have nothing to do with oppression or suffering,” Abigail shares.
When did your love for music start? When did you realise that you want to be a pianist?
Music was just one of many things I was interested in as a kid. I used to tell people that I would be a ballerina! I love to read and I won academic prizes at school every year.
I started studying with Prof Thomas Hecht when I was 11, which was a significant turning point for me. At 14, I entered the Bachelor of Music programme at Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, National University of Singapore, and I haven’t looked back since.
On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve ever decided to be just “a pianist”. I’ve worked as a humanities and music history teaching assistant throughout my studies at NUS. I am also passionate about working with young students and I’m planning educational programmes to present at schools, as a soloist and also with More Than Music and the Asian Contemporary Ensemble. Pursuing a career as a musician can be
so much more than being only “a pianist”, though that’s certainly fulfilling enough on its own.
What is the importance of music in your life? What does music mean to you?
Music is a prism through which we can view our world and a portal to dream of other ones. We use music, and other forms of art, as a means to explore what it means
to be human.
Playing the piano is a gift, a blessing and a constant source of frustration and fascination, but it does not define who I am. It’s just one part of my life.
Tell us a memory or an experience where a simple tune touched you and showed you something about life.
Well it’s certainly not a simple tune, [but performing] Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time was an exhilarating and humbling experience. This 50-minute long work is mentally and physically demanding, but what makes it extraordinary is its context.
The title of the Quartet is a quote from the Book of Revelations in the Bible, where an Angel announces the end of the world. Messiaen composed and premiered this piece when he was incarcerated in a Nazi prisoner of war camp during the Second
World War. Out of those devastating conditions, Messiaen spoke powerfully of ancient prophecies, eternal paradise and a world that would have nothing to do with oppression or suffering.
This music is radiant with divine beauty, unvanquishable strength and a fierce joy that transcends our human condition. Learning and performing this monumental work was a lifechanging experience for me.
How does it feel like to be called the piano prodigy?
I am very grateful to have received so much support and opportunities from a young age. I hope to keep growing as an artist and find new and fulfilling ways to develop my musical career. There is still a long road ahead.
You pursued a master’s degree from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. Tell us more about your school life in London. How has the teaching influenced you?
I had a wonderful time at Guildhall and I felt well-supported by my professors and the school. I had amazing opportunities, such as performing at Wigmore Hall, performing for the City of London Festival in 2012 and even rehearsing a concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
I loved how much there was to see and do in London. I threw myself into a wide variety of activities: competitions, chamber music, improvising with actors and co-leading the Christian Union at Guildhall. I also went to France often for performances and masterclasses.
In my free time, I would get discounted tickets to watch Shakespeare, stand in front of the huge Turner and Canaletto canvases at the National Gallery or just go on long walks. Ray Bradbury once talked about “throwing stones down a well” and that every time you hear an echo from your subconscious, you know yourself a little better. That’s what living in London was like for me.
You recently obtained a Graduate Diploma from the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music under the guidance of Professor Thomas Hecht. How has the teaching of Prof Thomas Hecht influenced you?
I’ve worked with Prof Hecht since I was 11. He gave me a systematic, rigourous way of organising resonance at the piano and analysing a score, which was, paradoxically, immensely liberating and transformative.
The goal of every good teacher is for their students to be self-reliant, and Dr Hecht has certainly given me the tools for that. Our working relationship has evolved over the last ten years, but his teaching continues to inspire and challenge me.
What are some of the preferred music pieces you like to play, and why?
I enjoy playing a wide variety of music, like an actress taking on different roles and accents. Right now, for example, I’m learning Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Ravel, Charles Griffes and Leon Kirchner. Each one inhabits a completely different sound world. I’m also involved with the Asian Contemporary Ensemble, which commissions new works from composers from around the region.
Are there any musicians, especially pianists, whom you admire and why?
I admire Daniel Barenboim, for the intelligence and integrity of his music-making and his multifaceted career, and Martha Argerich who is a true force of nature. Murray Perahia and Mitsuko Uchida are definitely up there on my list too.
Speaking of non-pianists, I’ll always cherish chamber music coachings with the violinist and conductor Gabor Takacs-Nagy whom I first met when I was just 15. He was kind, generous and so inspiring, and those encounters made a huge impression on me.
If you could collaborate with any artists – living or dead – whom would you choose and why?
I’d love to have been at one of Dinu Lipatti’s recitals and I’d love to meet Julius Katchen, even just to have a chat! I wouldn’t dare dream of collaborating with
them, but taking lessons from them would be amazing.
You have toured Eastern Europe when you were only 14. Does travelling change your perspective on music and life?
I suppose travelling can help a young person to be more self aware and more curious about the world. There’s so much to learn from meeting new people, experiencing a different culture or speaking a different language. I can get around in French, but
I’ve also had to rehearse chamber music entirely in Mandarin. I’ve definitely had some memorable adventures, from hitchhiking in Verbier to navigating through Yerevan with three Lithuanian boys and a lot of chocolate!
Which is your most memorable performance and why?
I was performing the Chopin Preludes at a small venue in London and I spoke about how the music captured the various facets of our human experience, from joy and tenderness to grief and defiance. A man came up afterwards to thank me, telling me it was his deceased daughter’s birthday and that my playing and words had given him some comfort that day. That encounter reminded me to treat every concert as an important event, no matter where I’m playing and how many people I’m playing for.
How do you get your mind prepared right before a performance?
I’m a Christian, so I pray and remind myself that it’s really not about me and my abilities nor what I’ve worked for. Musically, I need to have a solid plan for each
piece and certain key ideas to focus on. It can be a catchphrase or a rhythmic hook or harmonic goal points. I do pre-performance performances for my colleagues, so I get used to feeling nervous and understand what I tend to do when under stress.
What are the differences between the music scene in Europe as compared to the music scene in Singapore? In your opinion, how can we cultivate an appreciation for classical music among Singaporeans?
The music scene in Singapore has a lot of potential because of the availability of government funding for the arts and also because of the sheer number of school children who are exposed to classical music through individual lessons, school CCAs and concerts. I think it comes down to education and presenting classical music in an
engaging and relatable manner. We need to convince people that classical music can be a relevant and vibrant force in society and is something that should be valued.
Why did you form the group More than Music?
More Than Music aims to present world-class classical music performances to audiences in a more accessible and enjoyable way. We wanted to challenge the stereotype of the boring and stuffy classical music concert, break down the formal barriers separating performers and audiences and introduce new audiences to the music that we are so passionate about.
In More Than Music concerts, the performers share candid, personal stories and even crack jokes about the lives of the composers, the music we have chosen and what it means to us. More Than Music concerts feel more like a big house party, rather than a traditional recital.
How is working with violinist Loh Jun Hong like?
Jun Hong and I have been friends since our early teens. I’m proud to be working with him and I think we have a lot of respect for each other musically and personally.
What advice would you give to young pianists and young musicians about pursuing a career in music?
I think it’s important for young musicians to love what they do and to know why they’re doing it.
You will begin doctoral studies at the Royal Academy of Music in September 2014. Are you excited?
Yes, I am excited to start doctoral studies in September and I am honoured to have received the prestigious Lee Kuan Yew Scholarship for my studies. I was actually accepted to both Cambridge University and the Royal Academy
of Music, so I had a very difficult decision to make!
My doctoral project is on the piano music of the American composer Charles Griffes. I’m fascinated by how Griffes constructed his artistic identity, harnessing an eclectic range of influences from Scottish poetry to Japanese theatre, and how he negotiated shifting political and social trends as a young composer in New York at the turn of the 20th century.
Tell us about your future projects or plans in your music career.
More Than Music has a few more concerts planned for 2014/15. Our next concert is called Play! and it will be held on 9 September 2014 at the Esplanade Recital Studio.
I will be returning to Singapore for other performances such as ChildAid this December and the Asian Contemporary Ensemble’s gala concert in March 2015.
I will also be curating and performing a series of concerts and lecture recitals over the next few years to complement my doctoral research. I hope to build a portfolio career that embraces my various interests including solo performance, chamber music, contemporary music, research and education.
Other than piano, do you have other hobbies?
I love reading fiction and biographies. And I’ve been swimming a lot this summer!
More Than Music is staging its third concert PLAY! at the Esplanade Recital Studio. Share and connect with pianist Abigail Sin and violinists Loh Jun Hong and Gabriel Ng on September 9 at 7.30pm.
To book a ticket for this memorable evening, visit http://www.sistic.com.sg/events/play0914
For more information about Abigail Sin, visit http://www.abigailsin.com/
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