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free orchestra music, anyone?

On a warm Saturday evening
at the Botanical Gardens...

My friend was late again. To think that she was the one who told me about this free SSO concert at the Botanical Gardens. As the people continued to throng into the entrance gates, a few hapless souls like myself kept looking at our watches and squinting at the passing faces for late acquaintances. No doubt the kiasu thought that all the good seats would be "choped" by the time we went in must have crossed many minds.

I gave up and joined the long stream of what looked like picnickers - toting mats and food baskets - single-mindedly marching in.

The slope of green before the stage was mostly conquered. Many marked out their territories with mats, newspapers, pamphlets, trash bags and even towels; others preferred to simply sit on the grass. Everybody was in a carnival mood, no doubt helped by the enterprising makeshift stalls selling food and souvenirs.

After grabbing a hotdog, I negotiated my way through the "occupied territories" and finally found a spot on a side slope. A huge palm leaf blocked my view of the stage but it was close enough to get decent acoustics, which was what mattered.

I settled down and sized up the crowd. What a wonderful mix. Families, couples, groups of friends, and individuals like myself - whether Singaporeans or foreigners - were merrily munching away on their snacks, enjoying cool drinks or eating sticks of candy floss. And all were lapping up the music enthusiastically, greeting each piece with loud applause and cheers.

Everyone was having a good time. Some sang along; others tapped with the music; a few yards in front of me, a granny fanned her baby grandson in a pram, completely in tempo with the rhythm!

Whoever said Singaporeans are generally not appreciative of the arts?

It may be argued that Singaporeans will turn out in throngs for anything free, or are simply "starved" of ways to kill the weekend. But I like to believe that we do have an appreciation for good live performances, be it "serious" orchestras or pop music.

Of course, it helped that the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, together with the Singapore Symphony Chorus, was performing familiar tunes. The theme was after all Rogers and Hammerstein music, with well-loved songs from musicals such as "The Sound of Music", "The King and I" and "Carousel".

Still, the fact that many people made the effort to come down and listen (as opposed to say renting a video of "The Sound of Music") shows that there is something to be said about bringing non-popular music to the masses.

The "freebie" part of it, while attractive to the kiasu psyche, is not necessarily the only motivating factor for the huge turnout. The point, I believe, is really about ease of accessibility.

While paying tens of dollars to watch a formal orchestra performance may be too huge a step for the non-orchestra buff to take, a free performance or even a token admittance fee is less daunting to the lay person.

I am reminded of an article I read while staying in the UK. A debate had developed on whether museums should be allowed to charge for admittance, as a few had begun to do so. While this would have been accepted with minimal fuss here, the article argued passionately about the right of the public to have totally unhindered access to the museums.

While I am not advocating free museums here, the idea of bringing art to the masses is something we can practise, especially in view of our lofty aim to become a gracious society.

Already there are some encouraging signs, such as the recent art installations by international sculptors at the Botanical Gardens, and of course the series of free SSO performances.

The crowd was clapping to "Whistle a happy tune", a repeat performance following boisterous calls for an encore. Kiasu or not, Singaporeans are capable of appreciating orchestra music, I'm glad to say.

Ong Hwee Yen 1999

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