I know this is many months late. I had it written a while ago but never published it until today as I was clearing up my inbox and reading some old emails…

The person who set me on the path to being a conductor

When I was a student in London, I did not have a formal conducting teacher, and taught myself how to conduct by spending my afternoons at the Royal Festival Hall and watching the rehearsals of the Philharmonia Orchestra with Esa-Pekka Salonen and Vladimir Ashkenazy.

I was slowly emerging as one of the more prominent student conductors in college, and it was a huge deal as I was only in my freshman year and my college did not have a conducting degree of any sort. As I was not able to join the advanced conducting class (seniors only), the only option for me was to shadow the college orchestra as a conducting assistant. I was introduced to John in early 2012, and we soon found ourselves talking about music over several tea sessions around London. Eventually I was given the opportunity to conduct the college repertoire orchestra as an assistant conductor, and impressed with my conducting ability (which at that point of time I did not have any formal training), John invited me to follow him as an assistant conductor. We never had any lessons on conducting techniques (hand/stick) but instead he shared with me his views on music from a more abstract point of view in order to better express myself and communicate with the orchestra. He encouraged me to start studying conducting in 2012, and recommended me to several conservatories in Europe such as the hochschule für musik in Germany, the Royal Conservatory in the Netherlands, Sibelius Academy and of course, the St. Petersburg Conservatory.

It is with great sadness to learn that he passed away from terminal cancer on 14 February 2013. It was pretty devastating for me as I was studying abroad in Russia and only learnt about it a month later as I was supposed to be meeting him in London. John Forster has made such immense impact on my life, without whom I would not have become what I am today.


John joined the RCM in 1968 to study piano with Cyril Smith and violin with Felix Kok. John’s pianistic ability, combined with great musicianship, integrity and sheer love of making music soon led him to establish duo and chamber music partnerships with many of the RCM’s most gifted students. Alongside his piano playing, he also maintained an active profile as an orchestral violinist and developed an interest in conducting, under the guidance of Harvey Phillips, Vernon Handley and Norman del Mar. Two years of Postgraduate study saw the award of the Worshipful Company of Musicians’ Medal, the Sir Adrian Boult Conducting Prize and great acclaim as assistant conductor to Harvey Phillips on the RCM Chamber Orchestra’s European Tour. John was the youngest professor of music ever appointed to the RCM by David Willcocks in 1974, where he taught Piano Accompaniment, coached chamber music and was a staff conductor, subsequently becoming Head of Orchestral Studies and Conducting in 1989. He was the Music Director of the Farnborough Symphony Orchestra, University of London Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra, and also appeared with orchestras such as the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and the Ulster Orchestra.

His last words in the last email were

“I’m proud of you and I send you my warmest wishes for continued success and happiness! All the very best, John”

Your enthusiasm, humor and brilliant musical vision would be greatly missed.

1)     Do you have a favourite film music composer? Who is it? Why?
I don’t really have a single favourite film composer- I love the music by Alexandre Desplat, James Newton Howard, Nakagawa Koutaro, etc. If I had to name one, I would say James Newton Howard. While the works of other film composers can be identified by their thematic styles and/or orchestration, JNH’s works are written in a myriad of different styles which reflect his brilliant imagination.

2)     What is your favourite piece of film music? Why so?
I’m a Star Wars geek, so I’ll say the music of John Williams in the motion pictures Star Wars.

3)     Do the films this piece (Barber- Adagio) appears in influence your interpretation of the music? (The way it has been used in Amelie, Simpsons etc)
Not really – I am seeking to evoke a more serious, elegiac and deep sense of lament in my interpretation.

4)     Did you watch any of the films where this music was used? If you didn’t, is it intentional?
I have watched several films and tv dramas where this music was featured, but very often I felt that it was not really appropriate as the music was used for a more dramatic effect instead of evoking a deep sense of sadness.

5)     If you had a choice, what kind of story will the music be featured in?
An unexpected tragedy, where the audience were not able to predict what would happen next.

6)     How important do you think that music is in films?
Music in film is extremely important. It adds an additional depth to the two- (or three-) dimensional images on the screen and reinforces the film’s plot and characters. Music in film gives a more dramatic effect to what is happening on screen and is able to evoke different moods in the audience and allow us to have a closer connection and deeper understanding of the film.

7)     Your take on classical music being used in films vs. composed music for films.
I personally prefer films featuring classical music, since I grew up watching cartoons such as Tom and Jerry where the music of Chopin and Liszt were often used to a great dramatic effect. However, since films were not present when most ‘classical’ music was written, it is necessary for composers to create music to enhance today’s films – and they never fail to provide the audience with an amazing aural experience. It would be great if films have a good combination of the two!

8)     What are doing in preparation for this conducting session?
The Adagio is a popular and relatively simple piece, and I’ve decided to explore a slightly different interpretation of the piece to provide the audience with possibly a different experience. I have been exploring trying various tempi, rubato and the lengths of cut offs between phrases to use the reverberation to its best effect.

9)     Do you have a favourite conductor? Who? Why?
Esa-Pekka Salonen. He fully understands that the audience today are not only exposed to classical music but also music by other artists such as Lady Gaga, etc., and is constantly rethinking and renewing the tradition and providing today’s listeners with interesting and exciting programmes. On top of that, he’s an amazing composer!

10)  Being a young conductor, what do you think is most challenging to you?
I would say the most challenging thing about being a young conductor is handling many of the situations that may arise during rehearsals without stepping on too many toes. It can be challenging to find a way to best convey my intentions and inviting the orchestra to follow them. Sometimes, it is best to simply trust the orchestra and work on other details instead of demanding more than the orchestra can deliver.

11)  Can you tell us more about your training in Russia?
The training in Russia is pretty intensive- we study new pieces almost every week and conduct them with two pianos in the classroom to work on our techniques, gestures and interpretation before conducting an orchestra, which is made up of professional and experienced players. As a protégé of Leonid Korchmar, director of opera at the Mariinsky Theatre, I am also often at the theatre learning from conductors and guest conductors such as Valery Gergiev and Tugan Sokhiev during their ballet and opera rehearsals. We also have other classes such as harmony and aural. Everything is taught in Russian.

12)  Can you describe to us your best conducting moment yet?
Conducting Tchaikovsky’s Serenade in C with one of the world’s top 20 orchestras – the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra for the first time at the Philharmonia Building in St. Petersburg!

13)  You didn’t study conducting initially when you went overseas, what prompted you to make the switch?
Being a composition and piano scholar, and also an older and more experienced student (because of NS and my initial training in Singapore), I was the top candidate of choice when an orchestra at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire needed a conductor to lead them. I wanted to do a good job conducting, but since there wasn’t a conducting elective for freshmen I had to teach myself to conduct by attending rehearsals of the Philharmonia Orchestra and watching great maestros such as Ashkenzy and Salonen rehearse the orchestra. It was after conducting Mozart’s Symphony N. 40 and Saint-Saens’ The Carnival of the Animals with my conservatory orchestra when I found a passion in conducting and collaborating with musicians in an orchestra.

14)  Conducting, Composing, Performing – which do you like best. Why?
It’s hard to put a finger on one of the options. I love collaborating with musicians in exciting projects, and I would go for whichever puts me in one at the moment. Currently it would be performing film music with the BHSO!

15)  What do you think are some of the main challenges for a young musician trying to pursue music as a career in Singapore?
The music scene in Singapore has come a long away, and the advent of several new orchestras and ensembles provide many opportunities for young musicians to start and ‘orchestra career’ by performing with other fellow musicians and building up their repertoire. I guess the main challenge now for young musicians like myself is to remain motivated and dedicated to our craft, and continue on our journey for the love for music and bringing it to people around us.

16)  Apart from music, what do you like to do in your free time?
I would catch up with my friends and family around the world, and also whip up a good meal. I am a food junkie, and am constantly learning new recipes of different cuisines. Having a good home-meal also keeps me from getting homesick!

17)  What next for you?
I have two projects to bring the performing arts to the hearing- and visually-impaired children in Singapore in July and August, and a possible collaboration with Young Steinway Artist Congyu Wang and the NUS Symphony Orchestra later this year. Of course, I would also be returning to St. Petersburg to continue my music studies at the end of September.


(click here to visit the website)

I spent the last couple of days understanding more about the lives of the visually-impaired, and how they can enjoy movies and TV shows as much as we do. With Descriptive Video Service(s), a narrator would often describe and paint the scenes in the film with words. I decided to embark on a new project which would bring ballet to the visually-impaired in Singapore, and have decided on Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. Now to start writing…


I’m always passionate towards modern/new music (as much as Baroque), and as a young composer I know that it is usually pretty difficult to look for players who are willing to perform such pieces. As a conductor, I love conducting new music too as the rehearsal techniques used in this genre(s) of music are usually different from rehearsing a Classical/Romantic symphonic work, and innovative, efficient and effective techniques can be further explored.

I had the chance to conduct a new composition, Directions, by Singaporean composer Kongmeng Liew. Kongmeng Liew was previously a Music Elective Programme scholar at the Temasek Junior College, and in 2011 he was awarded a full scholarship to study composition with Ho Chee Kong, at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music. He also received lessons from Allain Gaussin at the 2012 Academie de Musique, Francaise de Kyoto in Japan, and has also participated in masterclasses by Chaya Czernowin and Charles K. Hoag, and has worked with several ensembles, such as the ELISION Ensemble and Ensemble Kujoyama. His compositional style revolves mainly around metaphors in music.

Directions is written for a small ensemble, and it was a challenge to rehearse and conduct players who were playing (and entering) in different tempos simultaneously. In my opinion, we had a good recording after some rehearsing and sorting out tempos and entries, and also because we had such talented players in the conservatory!

UPDATE: Directions was selected for a masterclass with Japanese composer Toshi Ichiyangi in Tokyo! Congratulations to Kongmeng Liew!

Project:SENTIRE was the first special music workshop and performance dedicated to the hearing-impaired children in Singapore. The music workshop consisted of several rhythmic games and some fun music making with percussion instruments, while the performance was a special introductory to orchestra instruments and was held in the special audio-sensory room for the first time at the Singapore School for the Deaf. The sound waves of the performance was amplified via a special soundboard to deliver stronger vibrations, and was also reflected through a special visualizer displaying a myriad of colours.

I would like express my sincere gratitude and appreciation to

  • Dr. Paul Whittaker OBE, (Director, Music and the Deaf UK), for being the ‘unofficial’ artistic advisor of this project,
  • Ernest Toh, (Administrator, Singapore School for the Deaf), and his team at the SSD for all the administrative planning, catering, interpretation and photography,
  • Yao Cong, Laurel, Wenqi, Yue Zhi, Wen Rong (Brass Quintet),
  • Gabriel, Yvonne, Si-Han, Christoven (String Quartet),
  • Janice (Woodwind Representive) for their participation pro bono and creative and amazing performances,
  • Kongmeng Liew (Associate Director and Workshop Leader of the Project) and Alethea (Assistant) for their participation in the music-making workshop and
  • Elise Li (Assistant Director, Marketing) for all the other help given during this project.

Official photos are at the official facebook page

Conducting Beethoven's FifthMe conducting Beethoven’s Fifth.

Anyhow, it’s great to be home in Singapore!

I’ve been really busy with stuff like college administration, apartment-hunting, moving, and studying both conducting and Russian. It’s my second week in St. Petersburg and my first official week of the academic year, and my (amazing) professor, maestro Leonid Korchmar, has given me Beethoven Symphony N.4, Mozart Symphony N.41 Jupiter, and Weber Overture to Oberon to study. There’s so many things on my agenda but I am actually having fun! I’ve had two lessons since my official week and I’ve done Beethoven Symphony N.4. Somehow, prof. Korchmar wants it memorized and have me run through the music during the next lesson (while filming it down), and proceed with Mozart. My lesson plan is totally different from my fellow conductor’s- He had to study Beethoven Symphony 1 before proceeding with Symphony N.2. Sometimes I wished I could do a cycle of symphonies instead of skipping pieces…but this is also really not that bad and it’s pretty amazing to cover pieces by different composers!

I’m off to my daily Russian class, and thank god I live 3 minutes away from the college (as opposed to the college dormitories- more about that later!). In the meantime, check this website out!

Conductorland (click to view)