In Singapore, waiting for the music

Catching Up With ... Steven Baxter

Steven Baxter opens a new conservatory in a place formerly devoted to business

April 13, 2003|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,Sun Staff

SINGAPORE -- Singapore's latest frontier lies in a maze of small offices in a nondescript building. The walls mostly bear nothing, and the furniture is so new the desks almost sparkle in the harsh glare of fluorescent lighting.

It's in this spare setting that a grand production is in the works. In just three months, the Singapore Conservatory of Music will be born -- and this will be its home.

Building a conservatory is no insignificant endeavor by any means. But in this tiny Southeast Asian country that long has been regarded as little more than a strict city-state and economic titan in the region, the conservatory is viewed as more than just a school. It's destined to be one of the crown jewels in the government's recent campaign for the arts, an elaborate recasting of its national persona.

And heading this effort is Baltimore's own Steven Baxter, former dean of the Peabody Conservatory and the founding director of the Singapore Conservatory. Baxter, 56, moved to Asia in November 2001, when the Peabody announced its partnership with the Singapore government, a first for a music institution in the U.S.

In his 15 months there so far, however, he's learned that his task won't be easy.

"Somehow, I had gotten the impression that this was a region that was waiting for a conservatory," says Baxter, a soft-spoken man with a gentle air and twinkling eyes. "I'd been told repeatedly that this region really needed a world-class music conservatory. I'd talk to musicians here and they would say, 'Oh, it's about time.' It created the illusion that everybody in the region was waiting with bated breath for this school to open. Well, I don't think it's true.

"What I've found instead is that there is a pattern of what young musicians do based upon what their older brothers and sisters have done," he adds. "In Singapore, if you're very talented and gifted and you can manage somehow, you go to music school in the West. You go to London or New York or you go to Baltimore. They don't go to school here."

It's a mindset that has its roots in broader Asian culture, Singapore's recent history and its government's long-time view of the arts as non-essential.

A competitive strategy

Since becoming independent of Britain and Malaysia in 1965, the Socialist-Democratic government of Singapore has meticulously built up an orderly country of 4.4 million with such a thriving economy that it has been among the least affected in Asia during recent trying years. To achieve this goal, the governing People's Action Party has emphasized science, business and medicine over the arts. Lately, however, there's been a shift.

In 1999, Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong proclaimed at the National Day rally -- traditionally a time for reflection on the country's growth and direction -- that "artistic creativity is an important element of a knowledge-based economy." And last fall, the country made headlines internationally with the opening of the Esplanade, a $343 million arts complex that the government hopes will establish Singapore as both a cultural leader and destination.

"The arts are not just for enjoyment and consumption, but are also part of Singapore's competitive strategy," says Choo Thiam Siew, executive director of the country's National Arts Council. "The arts ... create economic value by increasing our innovative capacity and our economic competitiveness."

And the building of the Singapore Conservatory is seen as a "major milestone" in the effort, Choo notes.

"It is a dream come true for a generation of people," he says.

The Singaporeans aren't the only ones closely watching the success of the conservatory. Robert Sirota, director of the Peabody Institute, says he was eager to work with Singapore on this project for several reasons.

"It's very unusual for us to have a country that has the desire and the means to request our expertise and to work with us on a project like this," Sirota says. "Southeast Asia is a very important new or potential market for us. We've always had a few students come from Singapore or other Pacific Rim countries."

Exchange programs

So far, plans already have been made for about eight string students at Peabody to go to Singapore on a fellowship in the fall -- the beginnings of an exchange program that both institutions hope to expand. There, the first group will study with the school's first class of students and rehearse with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

Baxter also has recruited a faculty with talents that vary from Chinese violinist and recording artist Qian Zhou to the internationally known pianist Thomas Hecht, who has performed with the New York Philharmonic and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. And for its first class, which begins school in a temporary building on the campus of the National University of Singapore in July, the conservatory has received about 100 applicants for 50 spots.

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