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Shanghai-born Yeh Tsung is the music director of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, which, under his helm since 2002, has gone on to take part in frontier-crossing interdisciplinary performance projects in music, theatre, visual arts and new media. Although trained in the Western symphonic tradition and first as a pianist, Yeh has studied with leading Chinese names including Cao Peng and Huang Yijun. Currently also the conductor of the South Bend Symphony Orchestra in the United States, Yeh has worked with numerous international institutions including the San Francisco Symphony, the Hong Kong Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Minnesota Symphony, the Radio France Philharmonic, Ensemble 2e2m, and the Huaxia Ensemble in Beijing. In 2013, he received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to music in Singapore.
Born in Shanghai, China in 1950, Yeh Tsung was encouraged to study music at the age of five by his mother, a vocal professor. He began learning the piano from her and initially found his lessons boring. But later on when Yeh started to accompany his mother’s vocal students on the piano, he was captivated by the melodies he played and began to fall in love with the instrument.
When Yeh was 10 years old, he enrolled in the Shanghai Conservatory of Music elementary school division, and moved on to the middle school division. In 1966, after six years of music study, the Cultural Revolution in China began. This put a temporary stop to Yeh’s formal music education in Shanghai, and marked the start of a harrowing decade for Yeh and his family.
Deprived of any musical experiences from the world outside China, Yeh continued to play the piano on his own during the Cultural Revolution, practising in secret behind drawn curtains and secretly going to his professor’s home for lessons. Eventually, these clandestine musical endeavours ended as Yeh’s parents were accused of being spies and the Yeh family home was searched, and Yeh was sent to a rural village in Anhui to work as a peasant for a year.
After the Cultural Revolution ended, Yeh was filled with a new resolve to not lose any more time for music, and re-enrolled himself in the Shanghai Conservatory of Music again to study piano in earnest. As a student, besides his classical practices, Yeh would also travel to listen to folk music of mountain villages, appreciating all the music he could discover. He also attended performances by the Berlin Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony in China—unheard of events during the Cultural Revolution—and found himself so moved by what he experienced that he was in tears. He discovered his passion for orchestral music, and thus began the expansion of his musical vision from that of a pianist into that of an orchestra conductor.
In 1981, Yeh’s talent for music was noticed and he received a full scholarship to study at Mannes College of Music in New York, USA. Yeh moved to USA, and completed his postgraduate studies at Yale University after graduating as valedictorian at the Mannes College of Music. In 1984, he began his professional conducting career with the St. Louis Symphony, and became the resident conductor of the Florida Orchestra in 1987. From then, he went on to work with many international orchestras, including conducting the Albany Symphony Orchestra and the Hua Xia Ensemble in Beijing, China, and music directing the Northwest Indiana Symphony Orchestra, Hong Kong Sinfonietta, and the South Bend Symphony Orchestra, with whom he still serves as music director today since 1988.
In 2002, attracted by the innovative possibilities of Chinese orchestral music, Yeh took over the reins of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, becoming the first conductor to hold concurrent music directorship of a Western and Chinese symphony orchestra.
Yeh’s arrival began the charting of a new history for the Singapore Chinese Orchestra that would include significant innovative programmes that brought together distinct musical worlds of classical and contemporary, and of the East and the West. Keenly appreciative of the allure of pop for the majority of music audiences, Yeh also led the orchestra in incorporating pop music in its performances, making Chinese classical music more accessible to casual listeners. In 2005, Yeh brought the orchestra on its first international tour, which included performances in London, UK, and Budapest, Hungary.
Under Yeh’s watch, the Singapore Chinese Orchestra also embarked on interdisciplinary collaborations. These included a visual live-installation with the artist-calligrapher Tan Swie Hian—Instant is a Millenium—as well as a music-theatre partnership with Mo Fan in Cao Yu’s classic play Thunderstorm. Yeh was also instrumental in bringing the orchestra to the Edinburgh International Festival in support of TheatreWorks’ multi-disciplinary production Diaspora.
In 2013, he received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to music in Singapore.
While he is well-known for his ambitious programming, Yeh is also recognised for his disciplined baton technique and rational approach towards music leadership. He is sought after as an educator and frequently holds conducting workshops around the world. His recent appointments include being Principal Conductor of the Chinese National Traditional Orchestra, senior researcher at the He Luting Chinese Music Research Institute at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, artistic committee member of the Jiangsu Centre for the Performing Arts, and a member of the faculty of the International Conducting Institute in the Czech Republic.
Yeh currently serves as music director of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, professor at the China Conservatory of Music, and guest professor at both the Shanghai and Central Conservatory of Music, with the personal philosophy that one should open up one’s heart to the arts.
Born in Shanghai, China.
Began learning piano from his mother.
Attended the Shanghai Conservatory of Music to study the piano.
Graduated from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and became a music teacher in Hefei.
Moved to Beijing.
Pianist, Oriental Sound and Dance Troupe. Toured Thailand and Singapore with Oriental Sound and Dance Troupe in 1979.
Studied conducting at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.
Moved to USA.
Attended Mannes College of Music, New York, USA, on a full scholarship. Graduated as the school’s first foreign-born valedictorian, receiving the Academic Excellence Award.
Attended Yale University, Connecticut, USA, for postgraduate studies.
Received the Exxon/Arts Endowment Award.
Assistant conductor, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.
Exxon/Arts Endowment Conductor, St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra.
Resident Conductor, The Florida Orchestra, USA.
Music director, South Bend Symphony Orchestra, Indiana, USA.
Principal Guest Conductor, Albany Symphony Orchestra.
Co-Artistic Director of the "Symphonic Workshop" for conductors, Czech Republic.
One of three conductors chosen by Maestro Daniel Barenboim for the Conductor Mentor Program of the American Symphony Orchestra League, Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Music Director, Northwest Indiana Symphony Orchestra.
Received the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) Award for Adventurous Programming with the South Bend Symphony Orchestra for innovative programming.
Music Director, Hong Kong Sinfonietta.
Principal Conductor, Hua Xia Ensemble, Beijing.
Co-founder, Shanghai New Ensemble.
Conductor, Paris-Shanghai Duplex Concert—a collaboration between the French National Symphony Orchestra and Shanghai Broadcasting Orchestra.
Music director, Singapore Chinese Orchestra.
Guest professor, Shanghai Conservatory of Music.
Guest professor, China Conservatory of Music.
Led the Singapore Chinese Orchestra on its first international tour, performing at the Barbican Center and The Sage Gateshead in the UK, and at the Budapest Spring Festival in Hungary.
Music Director, National Day Parade, Singapore.
Singapore Chinese Orchestra toured China, performing at the Beijing Music Festival, the China Shanghai International Arts Festival, the Macau International Music Festival, and in Guangzhou, Zhongshan and Shenzhen.
Singapore Chinese Orchestra performed at the Edinburgh Festival’s opening week, Edinburgh, UK, becoming the first Chinese orchestra to do so.
Received Cultural Medallion for contributions to music.
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.