Cover Musicians’ Initiative music director Alvin Arumugam

Led by music director Alvin Arumugam, Musicians’ Initiative is on a mission to nurture the artistic growth of aspiring professional musicians to be among the world’s best

Alvin Arumugam first fell in love with music when he joined his secondary school band. The flautist later founded the school band at Catholic Junior College because they didn’t have one. But it wasn’t until he was serving his national service that Arumugam was bitten by the conducting bug, after leading his first Singapore Youth Festival competition at age 20. 

“Conducting is not just about the music. It’s about enabling the musicians, understanding what they need and, above all, service to the music and community,” says the music director of Musicians’ Initiative. The Singapore-based non-profit orchestra seeks to make classical music more accessible through its innovative curation—of between six to eight concerts a year pre-pandemic—while providing young professional musicians with opportunities to perform in an orchestra.

Together with internationally acclaimed Belgian-American pianist Tedd Joselson, Musicians’ Initiative will present the world premiere of Manu Martin’s Lim Fantasy of Companionship for Piano and Orchestra at Flights of Fantasy, a classical concert celebrating Joselson’s platinum jubilee on June 8, at the Esplanade Concert Hall.

The masterful composition, which explores disruptive technologies at the intersection of technology and humanity in the form of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI), was first recorded at Abbey Road Studios by the London Symphony Orchestra in 2019, under the baton of renowned American conductor Arthur Fagen and with Joselson on the piano.

Flights of Fantasy will also feature two other piano concertos: Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1 in B-flat minor and Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor.

Arumugam, who is currently doing his second master’s degree in conducting at the Royal College of Music in London, shares more about the work of Musicians’ Initiative, and its upcoming concert.

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Why does the Musicians’ Initiative see a need to create opportunities for talented young classical musicians to perform?

Alvin Arumugam (AA): With the introduction of higher tertiary music education at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, we are starting to see many music graduates. There is a need to ensure that these graduates can pursue opportunities in Singapore and, more importantly, carve out a career in music making or peripheral activities. There is only one professional orchestra in Singapore, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, with limited vacancies and highly competitive global auditions to fill these vacancies. As such, the community has to galvanise itself, innovate, ideate and create art alongside the system so that we retain talent in Singapore.

Musicians’ Initiative has a roster of seasoned professional musicians from the industry who double up as mentors for those who are studying music, or those who are fresh graduates. These younger ones will need as much orchestral experience as they can get, especially since many go on to auditions to win jobs or scholarships for further studies. In some ways, Musicians’ Initiative serves as a stepping stone but at the same time catering to those who return to Singapore or choose to remain here. 

What potential do you see in the young Singaporean musicians of today?

AA: There is tremendous potential among the young Singaporean musicians. The pandemic has forced artists to rethink how we can reach our audiences and yet preserve the integrity and quality of good art. We have seen musicians merging social media and music. In actual fact, orchestras all over the world now have started to adopt a hybrid model of performance. Although there is still a huge emphasis on live performance, orchestras are now exploring innovative ways to reach audiences digitally. In many ways, the pandemic pushed the orchestral scene a decade ahead of its time, in my opinion.

The past decade we have seen several local musicians attain international recognition. They bring back to Singapore their collective experiences and raise the local standard of music making. Now, almost every week, there is a classical concert playing in a local hall. This is very different from the early 2000s when I was a student. There is a palpable buzz and a lot of excitement around collaboration and innovation within the arts and culture landscape.

What are some of the ways you think can help cultivate new audiences to classical music in Singapore?

AA: Orchestras have to rethink how we reach our audiences. There are several initiatives to perform in the heartlands. While these are excellent, it is not enough just to be physically outside of the concert hall. We have to connect with all Singaporeans by incorporating daily activities, trends, popular culture and social media into all of our artistic pursuits. When people can relate, more communicative pathways open up. When the public sees something familiar they will take the first step to attend a concert. In the process, they are exposed to the great master composers and the repertory. 

Tell us about the significance of the work Lim Fantasy of Companionship for Piano and Orchestra as well as the piano concertos by Tchaikovsky and Brahms.

AA: Flights of Fantasy is a celebration of Ted Joselson's platinum jubilee. Ted, a personal friend, is a formidable pianist who has performed and recorded with some of the best orchestras globally. We talked about the repertoire for an extended period of time and eventually chose two of the most well-loved piano concerti, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1 and Brahms’ Piano Concerto No 1. These are well-loved warhorses and we hope to bring a fresh perspective to them.

Lim Fantasy on the other hand is receiving its world premiere. Created by Susan Lim and co-creator Christina Teenz Tan, and composed by Manu Martin, the piece was recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra at Abbey Road in London. The music is very forward-looking. It has a heartfelt narrative that tells of a fictional companionship between human and inanimate, enabled through the new disruptive technologies. The storyline explores the changing landscape of companionship at the intersection of technology and humanity, driven by the twin challenges of longevity and loneliness. As society currently finds itself at this crossroads, physical forms embedded with AI systems fulfil an urgent need for previously unimaginable companions. The narrative and the music are very relatable especially to the youths of today.

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Musicians’ Initiative celebrates its fifth anniversary this year. What is one achievement that you are most proud of?

AA: In 2021, against all odds and the challenges posed by social distancing measures, Musicians’ Initiative produced the first fully staged opera since the pandemic at the Gateway Theatre. The double bill of operas included The Telephone by Menotti and an abridged version of Puccini's La Boheme, arranged and conducted by Melvin Tay who currently resides in the UK but returned for a month to work on this production with Musicians’ Initiative. This was a huge milestone for a relatively new orchestra both in terms of the massive operations involved in staging a double bill and overcoming the challenges posed by restrictions that were introduced due to the pandemic. 

As music director, where do you hope to take Musicians’ Initiative in the next five years?

AA: I hope to expand our typical concert calendar. Each of our concerts fall into three broad categories and are positioned as a curated experience, orchestral experience, or operatic experience. The curated concerts are very educational and serve to have a direct dialogue with concertgoers. We have very innovative ideas on how to reach out to audiences in the curated series. The operatic experiences are very costly. That brings me to the important task of fundraising. The board has envisioned a fundraising target of $1 million over the next five years. We are paving our way towards becoming an Institute of Public Character. Most importantly, I hope that Musicians’ Initiative will play a monumental role in plugging in the gaps and needs of musicians in Singapore.

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