“…Many a time I received discouraging (but well intended) advice: “How will you survive as a musician, especially as a harpist, in Singapore / Malaysia? Why don’t you take up the offer to stay in the States?”
They didn’t know I came from a background where I used to travel 6-7 hours on the trunk road from Malaysia to Singapore just to have a harp lesson. I envisioned a day where what I missed out on in my younger days was accessible to more people – harp recitals, opportunities to hear and touch a harp, making harp music with harp friends and most importantly, there would be a new generation of harpists who share the same passion, and bring the instrument to greater heights in our community, in the region and beyond to the international harp scene.
In 2002, I returned from the States and embarked on this dream. A dream made possible by the hearts and hands of students, supportive parents, a team of dedicated harp lovers who shared the same dreams, and also support and friendship from organisations like Camac Harps.”
Katryna Tan, Artistic Director, HarpFest
It may take a while to travel here from wintery Europe, but you’re rewarded with thirty-degree heat and lush palm trees as far as the eye can see. I even got offered a sweet by a smiling immigration officer, not an experience I’ve ever had in London, the US or even in Russia. It was a fittingly gracious start to the long weekend, for Singapore is also home to a wonderful harp scene! Musically, it is a particularly fertile one, drawing on the artistic traditions of both East and West, and it enjoys a fantastically dedicated core of students and teachers.
Jakez and I are at HarpFest 2012, a three-day biennial festival that has been taking place since 2006. It is the brainchild of Katryna Tan, who we’ve long admired for her unusual, powerful combination of artistic creativity and magnificent professionalism. In Vancouver last year, CamacCam followed her trio with Cindy Yan (violin) and Natasha Liu (cello - incidentally, Cindy and Natasha are the teachers for the string ensemble also starring at HarpFest). In 2012, Katryna’s latest duo album, of 21st-century flute and harp music, was a recent Camac Voice. Katryna brought Rave Harpers, her youth harp ensemble, over to Ancenis to take part in our fortieth birthday festival in May, and wild horses wouldn’t have kept us away from celebrating ten years of harp in Singapore this weekend.
From HarpFest 2012's three Youth Showcase sessions. Also performing are young harpists from Thailand, India, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Korea and Indonesia, in celebration of friendship among harpists of the region.
Having built up a studio of over fifty students in Singapore and Malysia, taken her twenty-strong harp ensemble to France, written music specially for them and taken them into the recording studio to make CDs, Katryna looked for a new group challenge. It is: Pluck!, The Harp Musical, a full-length, two act theatre show about the power and charm of music. It has a cast and crew of over eighty altogether, including thirty harpists aged between five and fifty (including Rave Harpers, and the Cempaka Poise Harp Ensemble from Malaysia). As well as writing the script, Katryna has arranged and in some cases composed the ensemble music, and rehearsed her students so they can perform the entire thing from memory (as her students always do – the effect is really impressive). The musical also features a song written by one of Katryna’s students, Tanya Philips.
Below: scenes from Pluck!
Together with a team of helpers of equal commitment and energy, Katryna has also coordinated everything involved in such a show. Together, the Pluck! / HarpFest committee (Katryna, Kee Loo, Rita Sari and Cheryl Tan) have taken care of sound, lights, video, set design, costume hire, backstage hands, backstage security, publicity, box office, tuning…the list goes on and on. Their superb organisation makes it look effortless, but of course, it isn’t.
Pluck! is, in effect as well as in its plot, enchanting. And everyone has a starring role, from five-year-old Isabelle Ho as the harp fairy, dancing with such aplomb, to Pluck – Chloe Lam - herself, not much older, to William Ledbetter as a suave and witty narrator, to the large harp ensembles aged between five and fifty, and the Fu Chun string ensemble against whom the harps do battle. Most of us find it hard even to dare to imagine putting on such a show with our students. But Katryna did dare, and she has done it.
If there's anything other than fear of flying that'll have you on the edge of your seat all the way to Singapore, it's Lufthansa's inflight entertainment. Having exhausted pictures of icicles and an hour of “Germany from Above”, I chanced upon an interview with a Singapore hotelier who, although an economist and not a hotelier by training, had gone into hotels because he wanted to build something tangible.
As Harpblog was musing with regard to Valérie Milot, when it comes to your musical career, there is no quick fix: you have to build something tangible. And this is exactly what Katryna and her colleagues have done in Singapore. Their students, whether they become professional harpists or not, will look back on their harp studies as having really added something to their life experience. They learn the harp, work extensively together as a group, have gone on tour, and memorised a two-and-a-half hour musical, with acting and dancing as well as harp playing. They will have discovered how to go about a project with real organization and focus, and how to work with others to create a collective success. Not every young musician immediately finds good organization and collaboration interesting virtues, but they are what make things happen. “To be an artist”, as Tadeusz Baird said, “is to have a dreamer’s nature, and to be capable of turning those dreams into reality”.
Unsung heroes, sorting out all our problems: HarpFest's registration desk
Tomorrow Harpblog’s spotlight will be trained on what's been going on with HarpFest’s guest artists: the fantastic Brazilian duo, Cristina Braga and Ricardo Medeiros; Liza Jensen, one of our favourite technicians, and our very own Jakez François.
In celebration of the sense of friendship running through the festival, and to honour Singapore’s decade of incredible achievement in its harp scene, Jakez has made a special Oriane (above) for HarpFest. Because Cristina and Ricardo have come from Brazil, it is made of Brazilian macassar ebony, and because pink is the colour of friendship, it is gilded in rose gold.
Katryna and Jakez unveil the new harp