Today, we have the huge privilege of catching up with Iris Koh, an accomplished pianist, music director, choral conductor, vocal coach and composer. Iris has worked extensively with the local and international schools in Singapore with experiences in choral, classroom, piano and voice methodologies.
In this feature, Iris shares with us about what she has been up to recently. Enjoy the feature!
WW: Thank you for your time today Iris! Can you tell us a bit more about yourself and SVBC?
Iris Koh: Currently I am the organizer for SVBC, which stands for the See, Sing and Study with the Vienna Boys Choir.
The Vienna Boys Choir will be here for one whole week, and there will be very exciting events during the one whole week. These events include training, workshops, and concerts for people ranging from music lovers, parents, kids, singers to choral conductors.
We are really excited and looking forward to the two concerts—one at the Victoria Concert Hall and the other at the Esplanade.
WW: So Iris, can you tell us a bit more in detail about what the public can look forward to in SVBC?
Iris Koh: So for 11th and 12th we are going to be conducting training at the Arts House, and the training is basically for conductors and teachers who like to know more about how to improve their skills as conductors. And of course, on how to work with growing voices, especially the voices of boys.
There is also the opportunity to see Professor Gerald Wirth in action, with the Vienna Boys Choir on stage. Professor Gerald Wirth is actually the artistic director and the president of the Vienna Boys Choir and he is personally coming down to share about the 500 year-old system that the choir is using to train their singers.
On the 13th of January, we are having an event at the Grand Capthorne Hotel, which is our official hotel sponsor. There will be a workshop for the parent and child, and the topic is how to identify, develop and encourage musical talents in your child.
WW: Wow, that is truly a workshop that many parents would be interested in!
Iris Koh: YES! This is going to be great because a lot of parents would want to know if my child is talented in music. In the modern world we live in, many people have so many things to do and distractions. So if your child has a special musical quality it is important to spot it and then to help the child to develop this talent. I truly believe that if a child is doing something he is good at, this would increase his confidence and he can do better as well.
So there will be this segment. And maybe the Vienna Boys Choir may sing a few songs at the event. There will also be an opportunity for the guests to mingle with the boys at the Junior Buffet Lunch.
It’s going to be an exciting event, and we are really looking forward to it!
At night on 13th January, the Vienna Boys Choir will be performing at the Victoria Concert Hall. Followed by the Grand Finale Concert on the 15th January, which will be with the Kids’ Philharmonic Orchestra. There will also be three songs performed by the local choir with the Vienna Boys Choir.
WW: Wow the event sure sounds exciting and we’re looking forward to it! I’ll like to go back to the point on how parents can spot and develop musical talents in their children.
Would you say Singapore as a society is conducive to develop a person’s musical talents in?
Iris Koh: Well I would definitely say that Singapore is one of the world’s most affluent countries. Many parents spend a lot of time and money on the music education of their children.You know, we have gorgeous concert halls, established music schools and a lot of high calibre musicians in Singapore that people can learn music from.
So even though we are a small population, we are affluent and we can afford high-quality music education and learning.
WW: So do you think Singapore will eventually be a thriving hub for music appreciation, learning and education?
Iris Koh: Well, you know it has been a long-standing joke that Singapore wants to be a hub for everything. And we all know that much as we like to be, we simply can’t. While I must say that the government has spent a lot of money and resources into arts and music education, some things just can’t be rushed.
If we look at Vienna, it didn’t become the “hub” for Western Music overnight. It took many many generations of world class musicians, support from the royal family in those days and continuous support from the government today to continue their long tradition in Music, which I believe they know sets them apart.
Unfortunately culture is not built immediately and today we live in such a fast-paced society that demands things in an instance. It takes time perhaps even centuries to even find our own voice and identity and we are still a very young nation.
I think this question also pre-supposes that the government wants Singapore to be a thriving hub for Music appreciation learning and education and unfortunately I’m not in the loop for this.
If I look at the steps we have made in the past 20 years since I came back from Australia in my music studies, back in those days, we didn’t even have a music conservatorium. The biggest concert hall back then, the Victoria Concert Hall. Now we have Yong Siew Toh, The Esplanade, Star Theatre and so many other performing arts venues and I believe the Esplanade and the concert halls, our SSO etc are also doing a good job to bring Music closer to the people.
It is a continuous work in progress although I feel a bit jealous that our literary arts scene seem to be more thriving than the musical scene here. But of course everything takes time and when a particular arts discipline does well, I like to think that it will pull along the others.
WW: So personally, what are you looking most forward to in the SVBC week?
Iris Koh: I’m actually really, really looking forward to the training that Professor Gerald Wirth is going to give to all the conductors and the music teachers, because I think it is a very rare kind of training.
It is not easy for us to invite Professor Gerald Wirth to come down to Singapore for so many day, and it is his first time in Singapore specially to conduct this training. He has actually been in the Vienna Boys Choir before as a child in the 1970s and he has performed at the Victoria Concert Hall as a child.
Professor Gerald Wirth has an international travel schedule and it really wasn’t easy to organise this training session. I’m not even sure if we will be doing this training session in the near future, so I strongly encourage all music teachers and conductors not to “wait and see”. Instead of flying to Vienna, we are flying Vienna to you for this training of a lifetime. There are master-classes for choirs, and even hands-on opportunities to conduct the Vienna Boys Choir during the workshops, so don’t miss this!
WW: I have a curious question—Let’s say a boy were to be in the Vienna Boys Choir and his voice breaks. What is going to happen to him then?
Iris Koh: Well, the choir is made up of Soprano and Alto voices. When a boy’s voice breaks, he will no longer be able to sing one of the parts and will have to step down from the choir.
There is however a mixed choir (SATB) that the boys can join, which is part of the co-ed school that the Vienna Boys Choir is actually part of. This helps them to make the transition and still keep their passion in music and singing alive.
WW: Just to clarify, are all the boys in the Vienna Boys Choir Austrian?
Iris Koh: No, they are actually from all parts of the world. Perhaps a majority from German speaking countries or from Europe. But there are some boys from Asian countries—in the past there was even a pair of twins from Singapore. There are also boys from Japan, Korea, Hong Kong to name a few.
WW: Do you personally feel that Vienna Boys Choir contributes to this abstract concept of the “soul of Singapore”?
Iris Koh: This is a complex question. I would say that the “soul of Singapore” in relation to music is a very deep subject.
We are after all a mish-mash of everything, which is why I was really interested in Singlish discourse, because I think that is part of our identity as a country. And I think Dick Lee is one of the few composers who included Singlish in his songs. And there was a period of time when the government didn’t accept his work and what he was doing. Yet he became very popular in Japan with his work “Chinaman”.
I went to the 60th birthday concert by Dick Lee where he shared about his journey as a musician. So I would look to him as one of the most respected figures in Singaporean music and his songs express our identity as Singaporeans to a very large extent. While SVBC week is about bring Vienna Boys Choir to us, it is also about Singaporean choirs sharing our music with the boys. And one of the songs that we will be sharing with them is Dick Lee’s Home, which will see our Singaporean Choirs on stage with the Kids Philharmonic orchestra singing this song.
So please look forward to that!
WW: Can you tell us one thing about the Vienna Boys Choir that most people think they know, but actually do not know?
Iris Koh: Most people think that there is only one choir, but there are actually four choirs in the Vienna Boys Choir.
The four choirs are named after famous composers namely Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, and Bruckner. And each group is made up of about 25 boys.
So each year, a different group goes to a different country. So by the end of four years, these boys would have travelled at least half the world. So being part of the Vienna Boys Choir is a very international and educational experience that you cannot find anywhere else in the world. And you get to sing in the best concert halls globally.
So if your child has a strong interest in music and he wants to be part of this educational experience, this is an invaluable experience.
WW: Do you personally feel that you’re making a difference in the way music education is done in Singapore via Vienna Boys Choir?
Iris Koh: Yes, definitely. It is a huge privilege for me to bring this world famous choir to Singapore. In terms of classical music and choral music, I would say they are one of the most famous groups there is in the world. Organising the SVBC week in Singapore has made me realise that our educators value classical music and they are hungry for the opportunity to learn.
I had the opportunity to visit the school where the Vienna Boys Choir is in. It was an old palace. They have a whole system of choral management that is beyond us, from their own costume department to their own PR team etc. Everything is professional and I have learnt so much in the process and I hope that we can really learn from them how to break new grounds with our choirs. I mean if something has been running for 500 years, I would love to know what they have been doing to not only keep traditions alive, but innovate to ensure they are not outdated / become irrelevant.
WW: On a parting note, do you have anything else to add?
Iris Koh: Well, I’m very excited and I would like to take this opportunity to thank the many people behind the scenes who are helping and supporting this event. Our partners, the Austrian Embassy, our sponsors, volunteers, conductors who are training the choirs to prepare for the concert and my team who are working very hard to make this event possible.
WW: Thank you for your time today, Iris!
Iris Koh: Thank you for having me on The Hieno!