The SYC Ensemble Singers have been practising since May for the concert that took place on Saturday the 5th of September. But Cecilia Rydinger Alin only just got to Singapore last Sunday. And right after the concert came to its’ end she was on a plane back to Stockholm in Sweden. When the interview for this article takes place, it’s a Wednesday night four days before the concert, and both Jennifer Tham, who is SYC Ensemble Singers’ conductor, and Cecilia Alin are sitting at ‘The Green Room’ at Victoria Concert Hall where the second rehearsal of the week is due in half an hour. Cecilia Alins time in Singapore has been short, but busy. Before the sold out concert on Saturday, there were five days of rehearsals with the SYC Ensemble Singers and their conductor Jennifer Tham.
“It’s a shot trip, but it’s had a long process of preparation,” Cecilia Rydinger Alin says, and emphasises how the cooperation and groundwork done by people in Singapore have been essential for her to be able to step in and take over with only five days to the concert.
“The preparations that Jennifer and her assistants has done has been of great importance, and it’s fantastically prepared. It’s like starting at a very high level and then getting to lift it even higher together,” she says and smiles at Jennifer Tham.
Jennifer Tham is born in Singapore, has a bachelor of Fine Arts in Music and graduated as a composer from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver in 1995. Since 1986 she has been conducting the SYC Ensemble Singers. She was the one who contacted Cecilia Alin a year and a half ago and requested her to guest conduct.
“It’s always our guest conductors who push us to the next level. We like to have guest conductors that can push us through the music and their visions,” Jennifer Tham says.
Cecilia Rydinger Alin is one of Sweden’s leading musical personalities, with a broad sphere of activities as a conductor and teacher as well as a Vice-Chancellor at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. She is best known in choral circles as the artistic director and conductor of Orphei Drängar, an all-male choir established in 1853, which today continues to attract international esteem for its groundbreaking commissions of works for male voice together with it’s rich and profound quality of it’s sound. It’s her first time as a guest conductor in Asia, and after working with the Singaporean Ensemble Singers she sees some differences in their approach to the profession.
“What I find is that the preparations is very different from when I prepare my choir in Sweden. They work a lot more with ear training and music theory. In Sweden we learn the music by playing the piano with the singer’s parts,” she says.
Two thirds of the songs in the repertoire for the concert were in Swedish, which was new, both for the choir, but also for the Singaporean audience.
“I try to find music that has lyrics of poetry and importance, and I hope that will be clear to the audience. That they pick up on the emotional part of it,” Cecilia Alin says.
And even though there were translations of the lyrics at the concert, the language barrier is, according to Jennifer Tham, not a problem.
“Everyone hears the music the same way, its build into our systems,” she says.
Cecilia Alin nods her head in agreement, but also explains why she chose so many Swedish songs for a concert in Singapore.
“It’s my native language and the music that I’m brought up with as a conductor. My culture is now meeting the Singaporean culture, but the language of music is universal, and that’s what’s interesting about working with choirs.”
She describes the guest conducting like meeting a person for the first time. She has her visions for the concert, and so does the regular conductors, and no one really knows if they are compatible until it all comes together. According to Cecilia Alin, it means that she has to keep an open mind. But for her it comes easily, as being open about herself is part of the job description.
“The leadership of the conductor has to be personal, because I work with my body, my face, with the arms and shoulders. So what goes on in my mind has to be transported through my body and be shown very clearly,”
Both Jennifer Tham and Cecilia Alin are in some of the high positions of the conducting world. They also both happen to be women. An assumption about the uneven representation of men and women as conductors is brought up, and is confirmed.
“It’s definitely a man’s world. And even more within orchastra. Definitely,” says Cecilia Alin and it’s Jennifer Tham who elborates further:
“The women don’t usually go all the way to the highest professions, so there is very few female conductors.”
Even more rare than being female conductor, Cecilia Alin is also the conductor of an all male choir in Sweden. But she says that she doesn’t look at herself as being a female conductor. She is just a conductor.
“But I do believe that we can be role models for younger female conductors, and help them get the confidence. There comes a time where you have to prove that you are as good as the male conductors, and for those things I think we can be of help,” she says.
Even though it’s still a man’s world, she has seen a great development within the last decades, and she predicts, that female representation will expand.
“And why shouldn’t it?” she questions rhetorically.
The last question before the conductors join the choir for a three-hour rehearsal is whether or not there are any nerves before the sold out show, and the answer comes almost in unison.
“No nerves, only excitement.”