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A Utopia reimagined

Pauline Wong
Pauline Wong • 9 min read
A Utopia reimagined
Michael Tay talks about Utopia, a musical project designed for the times we live in
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Founder and director of the Foundation for The Arts and Social Enterprise, Michael Tay, has loved music since he was a child. Having served as ambassador for Singapore to Russia, among other diplomatic roles, in his long and illustrious career, it was music that remained his constant. This exuberant, articulate and vibrant audiophile tells Options about the Foundation’s flagship project Utopia, a musical project absolutely suited for the times we live in today.

In 2003, then-ambassador of Singapore to Russia Michael Tay commissioned avant-garde Russian composer Vladimir Martynov to compose a symphony — something Tay envisioned would be a venture that would alter Russia’s perception of Singapore and fortify ties with the two nations. The symphony premiered in 2005 in Russia as 'Singapore: A Geopolitical Utopia'. Two year later, it was performed by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra at the Esplanade Theatres by the Bay and attended by then-Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and then-President S R Nathan.

Today, this same symphony has been renamed Utopia — a piece Tay now envisions is absolutely befitting and reflective of the hope and trepidation of the times we find ourselves in. Performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) and Choir, the piece was recorded last November at the iconic Abbey Road Studios in London, under the baton of LPO Principal Conductor Vladimir Jurowski.

The recording was meant to be released (under the LPO label) earlier this year, but was inevitably delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic. For Tay, this symphony is perhaps a culmination of his lifelong passion and love for the arts and music — a love he has cultivated since he was a child and listened to jazz on his brothers’ hi-fi set.

See: Henry Tay of The Hour Glass transfers shares to son Michael

Indeed, even the timing seemed serendipitous in itself, for it is in these times that a piece like Utopia is befitting and much-needed.

Now, as the founder and director for the Foundation for The Arts and Social Enterprise, Tay is ready to do more for the arts in Singapore — more needed now than ever before — and Utopia is the Foundation’s flagship initiative to kickstart a future where the arts and business go hand-in-hand.


Russia was where it all started for Utopia, but in Tay’s words, it pretty much “dropped on my lap”. “When I decided to commission Martynov in 2003, I needed to find a means of exchange between Russia didn’t know what Singapore was, and if they knew about Singapore, they would know it from an old cabaret song, which described Singapore as a ‘banana-lemon’ country,” he says, laughing.

The cabaret song in question is the 1931 ditty Tango Magnolia by Alexander Vertinsky, an early 20th-century performer and singer from Russia, who sang of a ‘banana-lemon Singapore’.

Its somewhat barmy lyrics goes something like this: “Banana-lemon Singapore is purely spurious; the ocean cries and sings without words, in dazzling azure skies the storm is furious, pursuing strings of birds.”

“The Russians didn’t know much else about Singapore, or about how modern we are or that we are one of the Four Asian Tigers,” says Tay. So, the only way he felt would help to create this bridge between Singapore and Russia was to touch its soul through the arts and music. Tay then took Martynov to visit Singapore and meet fellow musicians and artists, experience the local culture, and even stay at the famed historic Raffles Hotel. “I myself was very jealous,” he says jokingly.

“I asked him then to compose a mini-piece, maybe a string quartet, a chamber work that perhaps would not require a full scale orchestra.” “That was my lack of ambition,” he says. “When he (Martynov) returned to Moscow from Singapore, he told me: I am not going to write you a string quartet — I am going to write you a symphony.”

The ambition in Tay took over then, and said if there were to be a symphony, well, there should be a chorus as well. “And he decided to do that. So from a string quartet it became a 70-strong orchestra and a 50-strong choir.” Yet Tay, who served as ambassador from 2003 to 2008, at first did not want to attend rehearsals of the symphony.

See: Sharing the magic

Martynov, while a renowned composer in Russia, is a divisive figure in the realm of classical music. His minimalist, often unusual approach to classical music was not always met with enthusiasm, nor praise. Tay knew his work and admired it, but there was a bit of hesitation.

“I was very afraid of listening to it. Because while he [Martynov] is a wellknown composer, some of my friends in Russia asked, why would you pick [him]?” he recalls. “He kept inviting me to rehearsals, and I kept refusing, but the night before the symphony premiered at the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall [in Moscow], he absolutely insisted. I went, and that evening, when I heard it, I just broke down.” Hearing the symphony for the first time, says Tay, is a memory he will never forget. “It is Singapore in music.”

That was a wonderful moment for Tay, for it was indeed Singapore that was the focus of the piece at the time. Martynov had sought to describe Singapore, and he had done that by interweaving texts from the Tao Te Ching, together with the original dictionary entry of ‘Singapore’ in the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia, into the choral symphony.

Now, 15 years later, Tay wants to return the favour and bring Martynov to the international spotlight, and Utopia was the perfect vehicle to do so. “I felt that I had to do something for the composer. He’s done something for me and the country, for Russia and for Singapore. So I needed to promote him to the international stage now. And so I asked him: Who would you like to record this symphony? He said, the LPO. And so that’s how we renamed it Utopia,” says Tay.

Recording began last year in London and the choral language changed from Russian to English, as Martynov had originally envisioned. The original Great Soviet Encyclopedia entry was also removed, but the texts from Tao Te Ching remained. Singaporean violinist Loh Jun Hong also played the solo parts with the LPO on the recording.

The recording, which is on the LPO classical music label, is to be released on Nov 13, with the album cover based on an artwork called Utopia by Singapore artist Kenny Low. The artwork was something Tay just stumbled upon during an art show, and it was, serendipitously, also named Utopia.

“There is something so unifying about this piece of artwork, and I thought it would be a great fit for the cover.”

Arts in Singapore

For Tay, it is difficult to describe the symphony, but as one of the leaders in the orchestra put it: “It is hopeful, but not outwardly happy”; and perhaps this is the most befitting way to describe the times we live in, and the state of the arts in Singapore.

“We have somehow, I feel, over time, misconstrued the arts. The arts is not a vocation. The arts are actually in all of us. Even if you are an engineer, you are a better engineer when you are artistic and creative; and I think this is how we should start looking at the arts.” We should not see the arts as somehow separate, as less essential than say a medical worker. I mean, the medical worker too needs to be inspired. And I think the arts play such a key part in all our development,” he says.

“Singapore has reached a stage where infrastructurally, we are firstworld. We have built hardware up to a certain point, so what’s next? To me, that next stage is the software.” That software, says Tay, goes beyond building things, but building things for a purpose to make life better for the people. “We need to first also be a first world society of first world values, with first world appreciation for the arts.” He feels that Singapore has evolved and grown so quickly, and for the better. He is delighted that the arts scene is now so robust.

“10 years ago if you asked me if Singapore was alive with the arts, I’d say no.” However, there is still too much to do before the arts can be as thriving as he hopes it will be. This was his impetus to start the Foundation in 2013 as it is a continuation of what he has been doing in the arts all these years. “Music and words make me cry, they make me think, they make me look into the future and they make me empathise with other people or to understand nature,” he says. “You can look at trees, but when you listen to Beethoven’s 6th symphony [Pastorale], you are somehow connected with something that transcends that nature. If you take music and words away from me, I’d have a problem living.”

The Foundation, which also partnered with Sing Jazz to organise the inaugural Singapore International Jazz Festival in 2014, became an arts charity that same year. What it aims to do is to develop the local arts scene, bringing Singapore’s best talents to the global stage. “That is one of the pillars of our approach to the arts. And for that to happen, we need [more than] philanthropy, and businesses have to see the relationship between the arts and business as a win-win.”

This is why the Foundation has a unique approach to project development and fundraising. It acts like a venture capitalist in the arts space — developing the project with the artist, raising funds and implementing the project, including public communications. The goal is to ensure that every project delivers significant impact. The Foundation connects with business networks and resources to design arts initiatives that benefit both the artists and business, and ultimately the society.

Also, all funds raised by the Foundation are matched by the Singapore government, dollar-for-dollar. In February 2019, The Foundation received IPC (Institutions of a Public Character) status, which allows its donors to receive 250% tax deductions. Tay is now working towards launching Utopia in a live concert at the Esplanade on March 21, 2021, and have it performed by the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra under the baton of Professor Chan Tze Law from the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music.

“The Foundation is here to help artists in general, whether it is painters or musicians. What we do is not to provide a livelihood allowance, but what we want to do is to start a whole series of commissioning to pay artists for the creation of art,” he says

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