It’s difficult to know whether Kenneth Kwok’s latest incarnation is ‘mission impossible’, a zero-sum game, or a quango junket. It might be one or two of the above. It may be none, but the task for the recent C-suite inductee is— not to put too fine a point on it — getting ‘bums on seats’ for the Singapore Symphony Group (SSG).
It could be that the newish CEO of the SSG — of which the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) is the most prominent feature — has what it takes to shape the future of an organisation that should be the pride of Singapore.
At 48, Kwok seems comfortable in his new hat and shoes, and he’s been around a couple of interesting blocks in his past, gaining valuable smarts from various sources.
“I spent 10 years in education teaching literature and drama,” he says, “and 10 years at the Arts Council.” He also had a stint at the Ministry for National Development where Kwok coordinated the “national response” to issues such as “grass cutting” and “potholes’, he says, self-effacingly.
It’s a far cry from trying to get more people to enjoy classical music, an art form that has the reputation of being intimidating, esoteric, and elitist. Kwok is well aware that perceptions need to change, and he feels that strides are being made.
“I think we’ve come back very strong after Covid,” he says, “and subscription audience numbers for the past season are 20 per cent higher than they were pre-pandemic.
“One indication to us that we had reached new audiences,” he says, “was a lot more people clapping in between movements, which you wouldn’t expect from regulars. It’s anecdotal evidence that we’re seeing new people.”
A longer engagement in the concert hall
That is as maybe, but it seems unlikely in this day and age, when attention spans are on the dwindle. Kwok insists that this is exactly why live music is so important.
“I find that people appreciate being in a concert hall. Everything outside is abuzz and chaotic — six seconds here, six seconds there.” Listening to a symphony for 40 minutes without consulting your ‘black mirror’ should be a cause for relaxation, contemplation, and celebration, he suggests.
Kenneth Kwok is passionate about the SSO, and proud of its status as one of the world’s first-rate ensembles. In a recent BBC online ranking, the SSO sits comfortably in the world’s top 25.
When confronted with the expense of the operation and its relevance to all Singaporeans, however, he bridles, ever so slightly.
“There’s no orchestra in the world that makes money from ticket sales,” he maintains, revealing that of the SSG’s annual budget of $25 million, 60 per cent is funded by the National Arts Council.
How then would he respond to someone who suggests that the money could be better spent? “I would say that that person has not had the transformative arts experience and doesn’t realise how much the arts have changed lives.”
SSO’s menu of events
If Kwok is to be believed, the SSO’s upcoming 44-week programme has something for everyone — even for classical music virgins. He also points out that audiences for SSO gigs average around 85 per cent, although some events fare better than others.
When asked about ‘pandering to populism’, Kwok replies, “It’s all about balancing the repertoire. We’ve got some really challenging work in the upcoming season. But I’ll be honest with you, they’re not the works that sell 85 per cent of tickets.”
To that point, the SSO kicks off its new campaign in July with the SSO Pops: The Music of Hans Zimmer. It’s music that is accessible, that everyone can hum along to. But July will also see (and hear) Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, a complex work that makes extraordinary demands on performers and audiences alike. Variety will certainly be the spice of life in the SSO’s immediate future.
As it will for Kenneth Kwok, who will use his experience in approaching a difficult job that has many risks and rewards. He’ll definitely need to think ahead, but for now, Kwok, like the SSO, is on point, on brand, on message, and on track.
While the mission is not impossible, it is challenging. Kwok and his team are constantly thinking of “new and innovative ways to excite audiences, but with quality music still at the core.” There is no zero-sum game here, and Kenneth Kwok is relishing the responsibility of keeping the SSG relevant and a permanent source of national pride.