Going onstage (www.esplanade.com).


Lim Yau

Orchestral and choral conductor, and arts educator.


Published: 12 Oct 2016

Time taken : >15mins

Art development is a very natural process. Nurture it. Don’t interfere with it. Don’t control it either. If you provide a fertilized ground, it will grow.

Lim Yau is a well-respected and accomplished Singaporean orchestral and choral conductor and arts educator. First serving the Singapore Symphony Orchestra as Associate Conductor and Chorus Master in its early days, he became the orchestra’s Resident Conductor and Choral Director in 2001. He was also the founder of The Philharmonic Chamber Choir in 1994 and Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra (now known as The Philharmonic Orchestra, Singapore) in 1998. Reputed to be the only conductor to have premiered works by every major Singaporean composer, Lim has mentored a whole generation of musicians, and currently enjoys a second career as an arts educator at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. In 1990, Lim received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to music in Singapore.

Born in 1952 in Singapore, Lim Yau grew up the youngest of four children of a Chinese literature teacher and a housewife. He spent his childhood on Tiong Poh Road in Tiong Bahru, where a nearby coffeeshop would broadcast the Redifussion radio channel from 6am to midnight every day. As a result, Lim would hear Tchaikovsky and Ravel in soap operas in the day and fall asleep to the strains of nanyin music followed by the broadcast-closing God Save the Queen every night.

A young Lim learnt to play the piano and cello, and listened to Beijing Opera with his father, who also recited Tang poetry in Hokkien to him. When he was 12, Lim caught a Vienna Boys’ Choir performance of Blue Danube on a neighbour’s television, and this experience gave birth to Lim’s love for choral music. As a student at River Valley High School, he was an active member of the school choir, band and Chinese orchestra, often helping his fellow Chinese orchestra members notate music from cassette tapes.

In his late teens, Lim took his first music exam, receiving a Licentiate of the Royal Schools of Music in singing for teaching and performance. He had plans to be a music teacher but went on to study biology at the Nanyang University at his mother’s insistence.

It was when Lim began doing his National Service in 1972 that the seeds of his future musical career were planted. He was assigned to be a performer with a Chinese orchestra and harmonica group for an event at the National Theatre. After which, he was asked to stay on to work with the Singapore Armed Forces Reservists’ Association Male Choir. For the next two years, Lim transcribed and arranged choral music, and he got his first experience of conducting a choir.

After he completed his National Service, Lim became a schoolteacher for a short period of time. He then decided to pursue music and studied voice and choral conducting at the Royal College of Music in London, UK from 1975 to 1978. There, he was influenced and inspired by renowned composer Sir David Willcocks, who was principal of the college, and other mentors.

Upon graduation from the college in 1978, Lim sang with the Bayreuth Festival Chorus from 1979 to 1981. It was in this period where he was mentored by renowned Romanian conductor and teacher Sergiu Celibidache in Munich, Germany, from whom he learnt the philosophy of conducting and the phenomenon of sound. Although he eventually left the chorus, Lim had by then developed a love for opera and a serious interest in conducting.

Returning to Singapore, Lim delved into choral and orchestral conducting. He joined the two-year-old Singapore Symphony Orchestra as a concert manager and chorus master in 1980. While there, he took two years off in 1983 and 1984 to study advanced orchestral conducting at Guildhall School of Music and Drama in the UK on a British Council scholarship and attend Franco Ferrara’s conducting course at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena, Italy. When he returned, he guided the Singapore Symphony Chorus in its development into one of the region’s leading choirs. He also became the assistant conductor of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and eventually became its associate conductor.

Concurrently, he was also a guest conductor of many orchestras including the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra of National Opera and Ballet, China, Russian Philharmonic, The Philippines Madrigal Singers, Lund University Male Chorus, Sweden, and the Latvian State Choir.

While he was with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Lim founded the Singapore Lyric Theatre (now known as the Singapore Lyric Opera) with fellow opera-lovers Leow Siak Fah, Choo Hwee Lim and Toh Weng Cheong in 1990. Before this, Lim had been conducting amateur opera productions helmed by Leow, and now helped to define and develop the budding Singapore Lyric Opera’s repertoire. In 1996, Lim resigned from the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and became the Opera’s music director for the next four years.

Lim had also established and nurtured other amateur music groups in the ’90s. He founded the Philharmonic Chamber Choir in 1994, and the Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra (now known as The Philharmonic Orchestra Society) in 1998 to provide pit orchestration for the Singapore Lyric Opera’s performances. These became important platforms for musicians with an interest in training, developing and performing as ensemble musicians. Lim also nurtured a whole generation of young musicians during his tenure as Music Director of the Singapore National Youth Orchestra from 1990 to 2002.

After he left the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Lim dedicated himself fully to these projects. Under his baton, the Philharmonic Chamber Choir became one of Southeast Asia’s leading chamber choirs and won top prizes at the 19th Bela Bartok Choir Competition in Hungary where Lim himself was awarded the Conductor’s Special Prize. The Philharmonic Orchestra Society has since established itself as one of Singapore's flagship orchestras with a repertoire of both symphonic and chamber works, giving successful performances for the Singapore Dance Theatre and the Singapore Lyric Opera.

In 2001, a chance meeting with Lan Shui, the Music Director of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, led to Lim returning to the orchestra as the Resident Conductor of the orchestra and Music Director of the Singapore Symphony Chorus. Back with the orchestra and chorus, Lim committed himself to presenting new Asian works. He also widened the popularity of the orchestra through its educational and outreach programmes.

In 2006, Lim became the music director of the newly formed Singapore Symphony Children’s Choir, leading the choir in its inaugural concert in 2008 and in performances with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

For his contributions to the classical music and choral scene in Singapore, Lim received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Composers and Authors Society of Singapore in 2011. In 1990, he received the Cultural Medallion.

On 31 Dec 2011, Lim stepped down as the resident conductor of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra to pursue his other great passion, teaching. In January 2012, he joined the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts as its Head of Department for Music, and Head of Orchestral and Chamber Music Studies. He also became the director of the Academy’s orchestra and chorus.

Lim continues his role in the Singapore Symphony Orchestra as its Choral Director.




Born in Singapore.

1957 to 1963

Attended Seng Poh Primary School.

1964 to 1969

Attended River Valley High School.


Conductor, Singapore Armed Forces Reservists’ Association Male Choir.


Received Licentiate of the Royal Schools of Music in Voice Teaching (1975 LRSM Voice Performance).

1975 to 1979

Attended the Royal College of Music, London, UK. Graduated with GRSM (Hons).

1976 to 1979

Chorus member, Philharmonia Chorus, London, UK.

1979 to 1981

Chorus member, Bayreuth Festival Opera, Germany.

1980 to 1982

Concert manager, Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

1981 to 1997

Assistant Conductor, then Associate Conductor, Singapore Symphony Orchestra.
Chorus Master, Singapore Symphony Chorus.


Attended Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London, UK on a British Council scholarship. Graduated with a Postgraduate Diploma in Advanced Orchestral Conducting (1980 summer Masterclass with Sergiu Celibidache and Munich Philharmonic Orchestra).


Attended Franco Ferrara’s conducting course at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana, Siena, Italy.

1986 to 1990

Conductor, Singapore Broadcasting Corporation Choir.


Received Cultural Medallion for contributions to music in Singapore.
Co-founder, Singapore Lyric Theatre (now Singapore Lyric Opera) with Leow Siak Fah, Choo Hwee Lim and Toh Weng Cheong.

1990 to 2002

Music Director, Singapore National Youth Orchestra.

1993 to 1997

Principal Guest Conductor, Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus.

1994 to 1999

Guest Conductor, Shanghai Symphony, China; Guangzhou Symphony, China; Orchestra of the National Opera and Ballet, China; Philippines Philharmonic; Satu Mare and Constanta, Romania; State Philharmonic of Târgu Mureș, Romania; State Symphony of Krasknoyarsk, Russia; Russian Philharmonic; Philippines Madrigal Singers and Lund University Male Chorus, Sweden.


Founder and Artistic Director, The Philharmonic Chamber Choir.

1997 to 2001

Music Director, Singapore Lyric Opera.


Founder, The Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra (now The Philharmonic Orchestra Singapore).


Received Conductor’s Special Prize, 19th International Bela Bartok Choir Competition, Hungary. With The Philharmonic Chamber Choir.

2000 to 2011

Resident Conductor, Singapore Symphony Orchestra.


Guest Conductor, Latvian State Choir.


Music Director, Singapore Symphony Chorus.


Guest Conductor, Latvian State Choir.


Music Director, Singapore Symphony Children’s Choir.


Received Lifetime Achievement Award, Composers and Authors Society of Singapore.


Head of Department, Department of Music, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Singapore
Head, Orchestral Studies & Chamber Music, Department of Music, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Singapore.
Director, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Orchestra & Chorus, Singapore.
Principal Lecturer, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Singapore.


Guest Conductor, Philippines Philharmonic Orchestra; National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra; Shanghai Opera Chorus, China; and Singapore Symphony Orchestra.


TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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