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Ong Lip Tat

One of Singapore's finest pianists, composers and piano teachers

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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Ong Lip Tat is one of Singapore's finest pianists, composers and piano teachers. A piano prodigy, he studied at London's Royal Academy of Music and Germany's Hochschule before returning to Singapore where he became the "godfather of piano" and dedicated his life to teaching generations of pianists. His legacy includes a collection of virtuosic original compositions and many of Singapore's brightest classical music talents.

Ong Lip Tat was born in 1955 in Singapore, the youngest of eight siblings. He showed an innate musical gift from the age of four when he could identify different classical music works listening to his sister's records. Later, he followed his elder sister to piano lessons with renowned piano teacher Lucien Wang and started taking piano lessons from Wang herself.

His sister, Vivien, recalls, "He would steal my pieces and play [them]. And when it was my turn at lessons, he would take another piano and play the tune on that piano and Mrs Wang would say 'See, you can't play? Your brother is playing over there!'" Ong proved to be a gifted student, able to play perfectly by ear and performing excellently after only five months of lessons at the age of six. He gave his first public performance at seven, passed his Grade 8 examinations at the age of 10, received his Diploma at the age of 12, and gave his first solo recital at 13.

At age 13, he was awarded the highly sought-after Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) scholarship on the strength of his LRSM (Performing) diploma examination. However, he had to defer his planned studies at London's Royal Academy of Music (RAM) as he was deemed too young to go abroad alone. Ong continued his studies at Catholic High School, and while in secondary four, won a prize, representing his school, at a music competition in Taiwan.

After completing his 'O' levels, Ong entered RAM. There, in between working at odd jobs as a window cleaner in order to earn an income, he won many exhibition prizes. Upon his graduation two years later, Ong enrolled at the Hochschule fur Musik und Theater in Hamburg, Germany under the prestigious DAAD German Culture Scholarship and with assistance from the Lee Foundation for his postgraduate studies. Although his studies were paid for, Ong still faced the problem of living expenses. To cope with that, he arranged to take a six-month break from school every six months so that he could return to Singapore to earn an income from teaching, and pay for his living expenses back in Hamburg.

Despite the challenges, Ong's years in Hamburg were hugely rewarding. Hailed as a promising, young star, he won several awards, gave many acclaimed recitals including a chamber music performance with the Juilliard Quartet, and performed in several orchestras including the Hamburg State Orchestra. He also performed as a soloist with the Luneburg Orchestra, Kleckev Radio Orchestra, and Taipei State Orchestra. Ong was poised on the brink of an international career as a concert pianist. Yet, he gave it all up in 1979, when he returned to Singapore permanently to care for his parents.

Back home, he seized the opportunities that a rapidly developing Singapore offered. In 1979, he became the first piano soloist to perform with the newly established Singapore Symphony Orchestra, giving three performances of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.5 (Emperor) at its opening concerts conducted by maestro Choo Hoey. Dr Goh Keng Swee, then the Minister for Defence, attended the third night's performance and afterwards, gave Ong a letter exempting him from National Service so that he would be free to travel and work at his music. During the ’70s, Ong also started teaching the piano and gradually built up a reputation as an excellent teacher. Among his first few students was a young Wang Ya Hui, who would grow up to become an internationally-renowned conductor.

Over the years, Ong performed regularly at the Nanyang Technological University and gave charity recitals for the opening of the National Museum Theatre as well as the DBS Auditorium. He performed for the National Theatre Trust, Culture Foundation, Kidney Foundation, and the University Endowment Fund upon invitation. He also performed abroad to great success.

In 1985 and 1987, Ong gave two concert tours in China which were highly successful and received outstanding reviews. In 1995, he had three very successful concert tours in Taiwan, Malaysia and Japan. Shortly after that, he was invited to perform for the President of Singapore, Mr Ong Teng Cheong. In 1993, he released an album, Ong Lip Tat: Piano Solos on the Pavane label to acclaim. This was followed by another CD on Japan's ERA Classics.

However, these successes were shadowed by Ong's personal troubles. For many years, he suffered from depression. That and stage fright led to many last-minute cancellations of concert appearances. Although he sometimes managed to overcome his condition to give acclaimed performances such as his 2004 performance of the Yellow River Concerto with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra led by Yeh Tsung, he generally gave few solo recitals and mainly performed with other pianists, violinists and singers, and at the end of his students’ recitals.

Instead, Ong dedicated most of his life to teaching. He developed a reputation as one of Singapore's top piano pedagogues, teaching privately as well as at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts' Department of Music where he was at first a full-time lecturer (2004-2008) and then a part-time lecturer (2008-2013).

Over the decades, he nurtured generations of young pianists, many of whom developed into some of the brightest talents in Singapore’s classical music scene, winning local and international awards and placements in prestigious music academies such as Juilliard. They include Wang Ya Hui, Young Artist Award-recipient Zechariah Goh, pianists Paul Liang, Timothy Ku, Soon Liok Kee, Elaine Chew, Albert Lin, Lee Pei Ming, Emily Wu Chia Ying and Xu Wei Chao and violinist Lee Shi Mei.

Ong's reputation as a piano virtuoso also led to many invitations to conduct music workshops and master classes around the world. Over the years, he conducted such classes at top universities and music academies in Taiwan, China, Malaysia, USA and Japan. In recent years, he became particularly popular with the Chinese, many of whom even travelled to Singapore once a month to study under him. He also travelled many times with his students to China where they performed their recitals.

Less well known was his talent as a composer. He wrote his own original compositions, virtuosic works that he slipped into his concerts and recordings. Strangely, he never claimed credit for them, but attributed them to obscure composers, as revealed by longtime classical music reviewer for The Straits Times, Dr Chang Tou Liang, in his Tribute to Ong Lip Tat (1955-2013). Wrote Dr Chang: "Ong Lip Tat was not only a great Singaporean pianist, and also our most important pianist-composer, a figure akin to Rachmaninov, Busoni and Godowsky..."

Ong passed away from multiple organ failure on 27 February 2013 at the age of 57. He had taught right up till the day he was hospitalised. More than 100 former students, colleagues and friends attended his wake. A bachelor, he is remembered by his students as a strict but very caring and encouraging teacher, a mentor who devoted his life to music and his students and taught them to play from the heart.

Of his compositions, Dr Chang observed, "One wonders whether he notated these extremely personable works. And if the scores do indeed exist, they represent a treasure trove in which Singaporean pianists, present and future, can certainly learn and revel in."

Timeline

1955

Born in Singapore.

1961

Started performing at age six.

1968

Gave his first solo recital.

Awarded the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) scholarship.

1969

Performed his first concerto in Taipei.

1970 to 1979

Chamber music performance with the Juilliard Quartet.

Soloist with the Luneburg Orchestra.

Soloist with the Kleckev Radio Orchestra.

Soloist with the Taipei State Orchestra.

1971

Attended Royal Academy of Music in London at the age of 16.

1973

Attended Hochschule fur Musik und Theater in Hamburg, Germany.

1979

Returned to Singapore.

Jan 1979

First soloist to perform with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and gave three performances of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 at its inaugural concert conducted by Choo Hoey.

1985

Performed for a concert tour in China.

1987

Performed for a concert tour in China.

1993

Released a CD of piano solos on the Pavane label.

1995

Performed in concert tours that travelled Taiwan, Malaysia and Japan.

Performed for the former President of Singapore, Mr Ong Teng Cheong.

27 Feb 2013

Passed away, at age 57, in Singapore.


TributeSG

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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