Artistic director Lim Yan is a first for the Singapore International Piano Festival: he is the first active performer to be at the head of the festival in its 26 years of running. After graduating from the Royal Northern College of Music in 1993, where he was taught by Ronan O'Hora and David Hartigan, the seasoned recitalist and concerto soloist has performed throughout Asia and Europe, including Cheltenham Music and Beijing International Piano festivals. We talk to him about his hopes and expectations for this year's festival line-up.

Lim Yan
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Bachtrack: How did it come about that you were appointed Festival Director of the 26th SIPF?

Lim Yan: In August 2016 I was approached by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra's CEO Chng Hak-Peng and Programmes Manager Michelle Yeo, when it was known that my predecessor Lionel Choi would be stepping down after nine years in the post of Artistic Director. Initially, I was quite reluctant to accept as this is quite some way out from what I consider to be my strengths and my comfort zone, but Hak-Peng and Michelle were very persuasive and I eventually agreed to take up the challenge.

What’s unique about the SIPF?

I would say that SIPF is one of the leading festivals of this nature in this region, and the consistent high standards of the artists and programming makes us a stand-out in the calendar. Last year, Lionel pulled off the major coup of engaging Martha Argerich for not just one, but two performances with Darío Alejandro Ntaca and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra at the Esplanade Concert Hall in celebration of 25 years of SIPF. I also have quite a personal relationship with SIPF – the first ever edition in 1994 coincided with the year in which I had decided to pursue music seriously and to attend a music school in the UK, so in a way I have grown up together with SIPF, in both a literal and musical sense.

How did you approach creating the programme and choosing the performers for this year’s festival?

We allowed the artists to craft their own programmes for the festival this year. We did not want to restrict each pianist in their programming – which is why we did not have a festival theme this year.

Last year was the 25th anniversary of the festival, and you had some huge names. How do you follow that this year?

Having had to follow such an extraordinary season has actually been somewhat strangely liberating for me, with almost the feeling of a fresh start, and the beginning of hopefully another successful 25 years (and beyond) for the festival. Naturally, one of the first names on my wish list was the person who has been not only my greatest artistic influence but also a fantastic mentor to this day: Ronan O’Hora was my tutor for seven years at Chetham’s School of Music and the Royal Northern College of Music. I am thrilled that he agreed to be part of this year’s festival and am looking forward immensely to his recital, which features some of the repertoire which I know to be closest to his heart.

Interior of the Victoria Concert Hall
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Otherwise, I have strived for a balance of repertoire, artistic and performing styles that I hope will appeal to a wide audience base. That being said, I am also aware that my own personal tastes will inevitably be reflected in the programming and line-up; so besides Ronan, I am excited to also present Sa Chen, Kirill Gerstein and Ingrid Fliter, and their brand of artistry – and I hope that the audience will also share my appreciation and admiration of them.

Are you planning on bringing anything new or different to the festival compared to previous editions?

In recent years, I feel the festival has had an increased vibrancy and relevance to the cultural landscape in Singapore, thanks to the complementary events that have been held in conjunction with SIPF – for example, masterclasses conducted by featured artists, and last year, a lecture recital by Darío Alejandro Ntaca. This is something I am excited to explore and hopefully expand upon, to create a buzz to the festival in addition to the evening recitals, the traditional core of the event.

This is the motivation for this year’s “In Conversation with Ronan O’Hora”. Over the course of seven years studying with him, we talked about so many topics – well, perhaps it would be more accurate to say, he talked and I listened! – so I thought it would be interesting to have a forum where he could share his insights and wisdom with not just one student but a roomful of people.

Ronan O'Hora
© Ronan O'Hora

 Can you tell us who are the biggest influences on your own playing?

I have been fortunate to have had excellent teachers throughout my developmental years. I studied with Lim Tshui Ling in Singapore and David Hartigan at Chetham’s School of Music – who not only gave me a strong technical and musical foundation but also nurtured and kindled my love of music.

Ronan once said to me that “the job of a music teacher is to make him/herself obsolete”, a philosophy which he put into practice by always encouraging me to think for myself, by demanding of me a personal and original interpretation, but one which is also informed and true to the composer’s intentions, of whatever piece of music I was learning. Moreover, he encourages his students to cultivate a variety of extra-musical interests, so as to be able to draw upon many different sources of inspiration, and by being a more well-rounded individual, to also become a more interesting musician.

So finally, in answer to the question, I would like to reply, without irony or facetiousness: life, the universe and everything.

You have studied both in the UK and in Singapore. Are there differences in the approach to classical music and piano in the two countries?

Certainly. I think it is impossible to ignore the fact that Europe was, for so many years, central to the development of what we now consider classical music, and the UK is part of that tradition, with a lineage of composers tracing back to, for instance, John Dowland, William Byrd and Thomas Tallis. On the other hand, Singapore occupies an interesting position both geographically and culturally, with a melting pot of diverse regional cultures – which we know influenced and inspired composers such as Poulenc, who was fascinated by the sound of the gamelan, and Puccini, who transcribed and used Chinese folk melodies in his opera Turandot. Nevertheless, I believe that music, and especially classical music, is truly an universal language that has relevance and resonance regardless of geographical location, because it speaks of human emotions, feelings, and what it means to be human, so there are far more similarities than differences, especially with technology making the world a smaller place than it ever was.

When and where does the festival take place? What are the venues like? Is the local community involved with the festival and if so, how?

The Festival takes place from the 30 May to the 3 June 2019 at the Victoria Concert Hall. The hall is the home of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, and iconic birthplace of the Festival. It is also a venue favoured for her intimate setting designed specially for chamber and solo-scale performances. There is a big emphasis on engaging the local community. Besides “In Conversation with Ronan O’Hora”, Ingrid Fliter and Kirill Gerstein will be conducting masterclasses involving students from two conservatories in Singapore – the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, and the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. All four recitals will also feature a post-concert autograph session where fans will be able to meet the pianists up close.

Entrance to the Victoria Concert Hall
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Any inside tips or recommendations for people who might be attending the festival this year?

Book your tickets early to avoid disappointment. Stay on after each recital to get a chance to meet each pianist up-close and personal in their autograph sessions – even take a selfie or two.

Are you looking to attract an audience from abroad or a more local one?

The SIPF has traditionally attracted patrons from all over the world. Last year’s festival saw patrons attending from 33 countries, with the biggest proportion coming from Singapore (60%), followed by Malaysia (12%), Indonesia (5%), China (4%) and Korea (3%). Also, some of the patrons had travelled from as far as South America, so we really are a international festival.

Is there an event you are particularly looking forward to?

Personally, I am thrilled to have Ronan visit and perform in Singapore, but all four recitals promise to be truly special events, reflecting their unique personalities. Also, the complementary events are a fantastic opportunity to get up close to the artists. To rephrase the question: “Which of your children do you love more than the others?”

This interview was sponsored by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.