The plot thickens & my first SSO concert

Friday 11 May 2001 – Singapore

A day of many revelations. Geoff’s advice about my situation was not to worry about offending anyone too much and being very direct and assertive about my own needs and desired outcomes from my attachment. I took his advice, which turned out to be spot-on and spoke to Liew, stating that I needed some projects to work on, ideally in the marketing area.

I said I had scheduled a meeting with the SSO marketing manager later in the morning and that I would be seeking to make such arrangements with her. He leapt into the breach and we marched straight down to her office where he interrupted a meeting she was in and told her as much!

Met some musicians – Jiri, a Russian resident in Singapore for 20 years and Principal Viola, and Nella, American principal cello, who’s only been here a few months. Earlier in the week met Jon Fox, American principal percussion, here about 1 year and some casuals, including Owen Torr, harpist from Australia who’s been here 5 months and is looking forward to going home in a couple of weeks.

After lunch, Jamie Lee asked for my help to prepare a brochure summarising SSO’s education program, an item that she proposed to use to communicate with teachers, parents and other stakeholders. We had some further discussions about the overall program and she showed me some programming ideas she is working on for 2002. I asked her how the education program was incorporated into the overall marketing and audience development program – she wasn’t sure, although she thought that there were cheaper tickets available for young adults. If in my time here I can do no more than to encourage them to work together and get some integration happening between education, marketing and even programming, it will be a major achievement.

For her brochure, I think my strategy will be to write the brochure as I think it should be operating and try to get them to work on the underlying structure to match. Mr Liew asked me to attend a meeting late in the afternoon with some key staff (marketing, finance, admin) and members of the Friends group. The Friends have been running the merchandise shop at SSO concerts, and from what I could gather, seem to be doing a good job of it.

Benjamin Chee, a young music graduate, chairs the Friends. Ben has been managing the shop and established a small but useful trade in CDs at concerts – he sources disks by visiting artists which generally sell quite well at a reasonable profit, which goes a small way towards raising funds for the Orchestra. They also sell umbrellas, T-shirts, caps and such, but the CD trade seems to be becoming well-known.

Visiting artists’ and local composers’ signatures are sought and even if all disks don’t sell on the night of the concert, signed copies continue to sell over time. The management wish to transfer management of the shop from the Friends group themselves to the Marketing department. This is apparently a strategy to force marketing staff to be in attendance at concerts, which is currently not occurring. The meeting was to plan the hand over, which is to occur by mid June in time for the second season in July.

Statue of Sir Stamford Raffles near the Victoria Concert Hall, home of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Statue of Sir Stamford Raffles near the Victoria Concert Hall, home of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra

In the course of the meeting, however, a number of interesting facts emerged. It seems that Mr Liew’s indication that concerts were at 80% capacity was something of a positive spin on the reality. Concerts this weekend are at more like 30-40%, and a major, big ticket concert on for two performances next week featuring American soprano Barbara Hendricks has sold similarly poorly, despite being promoted as a ‘Gala event’. The orchestra clearly has major problems attracting any audience.

After the meeting I spoke with Dr Chang Tou Liang, a member of the SSO Board. As well as being on the Board, he works with the Education staff (writing notes), writes some of the program notes, is on the Education Committee and is in the process of establishing a Marketing Committee. He is a medical practitioner, but absolutely passionate about music and his orchestra and deeply concerned that affairs are not going well for it at the moment.

He is doubly concerned about the impending extension of concerts to the Esplanade Concert Hall in 2002. That venue will have double the capacity of VCH, and the SSO has chosen to still undertake two performances of each program, despite not currently being able to half-fill VCH for each concert. Dr Chang was extremely knowledgeable about contemporary music and was fascinated to read our subscription programs – he knew all of the contemporary works and composers and seemed to wish that SSO could program as many new works.

He hoped that I would attend the forthcoming meeting of the Board of Directors – I said I’d like to but would discuss it with Mr Liew. Dr Chang is clearly a passionate, literate and involved supporter of the orchestra. After a quick sandwich in the foyer café, it was time for the evening’s concert. I (as is my habit) hovered in the foyer watching the audience. Interestingly, it was, as Dr Chang had suggested, a very young audience by Australian standards.

Cai Jin Ting, one of the SSO’s Education Staff and a trained double bass player, told me later that the older Chinese population didn’t really have the western music background that mainland Chinese seem to have. She said they tend to prefer Chinese opera or pop music. The audience was a mix of younger Singaporeans and expatriates of a wide range of ages, and there weren’t a large number of them.

I sat in the balcony which would have only been around 10% sold. The program was a somewhat eclectic mix – Rossini’s William Tell Overture, a less than exciting medley of Beatles tunes that outstayed its welcome by about 15 minutes (it ran about 20), then after interval Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique to finish off. I did feel for the players attempting to play with excitement and adrenaline given the poor house, and the fact that they’ll face a similar crowd again tomorrow evening. This is despite their ticket prices being some of the cheapest of any orchestra anywhere.

Geoff had observed that when people pay $15 to see the SSO, they go away feeling that they’ve had $15 worth of fun (i.e., not much!) Afterwards I hung back to see if any of the musicians were kicking on for a drink, but everyone seemed to rush off home, so I did so to.

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