International travel has not been a frequent feature of my life but, earlier this year, I was able to join my wife for 11 days in Singapore where she was working as an examiner for the ABRSM.
It was my first visit to this island republic of around 5.6 million people and, I suppose, my subconscious expectation was that I wouldn’t come across many pipe organs – partly, maybe, because of the equatorial climate, and partly due to Christianity accounting for only around 18% of religious belief in the nation (Buddhism is the largest faith, accounting for 33%).
It was therefore interesting to discover that the American Guild of Organists has a Singapore Chapter led by a respected recitalist and teacher, Dr Evelyn Lim, and they usefully provide some online information about current instruments. According to this there are at present 10 working pipe organs in Singapore (though not all are detailed) with another being unplayable, and the addition of “a few [unidentified] small positive/portativ organs”.
Singapore’s Cathedrals and Organs
An obvious starting point for the visiting organ enthusiast might seem to be the two Cathedrals, St.Andrew’s (Anglican) and the Good Shepherd (Roman Catholic). Both of these are located in the colonial area of Singapore’s city centre, a short walk from the iconic Raffles Hotel.
The organ at St Andrew’s is the one stated by the Singapore AGO website as being unplayable; however, a combination instrument has actually been created there using an American digital console.
As a tourist there was no easy route to seeing it up close and, since the cathedral’s churchmanship (evangelical) is not my own tradition, I confess I was not tempted to attend a service just on the off-chance of hearing the instrument in action. Instead, on the Sunday which fell in the middle of my holiday, my wife and I attended Mass at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Good Shepherd.
The Cathedral of the Good Shepherd was originally built as a church between 1843 and 1847, and then elevated to cathedral status in 1888.
On a gallery at the west end is a two-manual instrument originally built in 1912 by Bevington, and restored by Robert Navaratnam in 1984. It was removed from 2010 to 2016 during a major restoration of the building, during which time it was further restored, and then reinstated by Philippines organ builders Diego Cera.
Most recently the instrument has been connected to a supplementary digital console situated at the east end on the south side, next to where an enthusiastic choir sit. This offers the obvious understandably practical advantage of the accompanist then being in close proximity to the singers during the liturgy.
After the service I was kindly granted a viewing of the elegant main console on the gallery.
The Pipe Organ at Victoria Concert Hall
I would argue that the more satisfying side of the organ equation in central Singapore is to be found in the city’s two major concert venues: the Victoria Concert Hall, and the Concert Hall of the “Esplanade Theatres on the Bay”. Each building features a significant instrument, both of which I was delighted to have the good fortune to be able to play during my holiday.
The Victoria Concert Hall – originally known as the Victoria Memorial Hall – was completed in 1905 as a companion to the adjacent Town Hall of 1862 (the latter then being renamed as the Victoria Theatre). The two buildings were joined in 1906 by a corridor wing with magnificent clock tower, designed to create a unified appearance to the whole. The complex underwent a major refurbishment between 2010 and 2014, including the creation of a new glazed-roof atrium between the two auditoria, as well as additional spaces and facilities such as a café.
The Victoria Hall organ was built by Orgelbau Klais of Bonn in 1987 (specification here), replacing the first instrument there which dated from 1931. The present organ retains the original façade, however, now also refurbished along with the Hall interior. The unfussy mechanical-action console seemed in keeping with the classical-feeling tonal scheme, and I found it comfortable to play. It struck me as particularly effective in repertoire where solo timbres could be employed, such as in chorale preludes.
I found this to be a pleasantly satisfying instrument to play. My visit to the more modern Concert Hall at Esplanade Theatres on the Bay will feature in a subsequent blog coming soon.
Richard is based part-time in our Bicester head office, also being a freelance organist in the Oxford area. He comes to Viscount with many years’ experience in the digital organ industry having worked previously for the Royal School of Church Music in its Addington days. Richard has been organist and choir director at St. Margaret’s Church, Oxford for the past fifteen years.
Martin Riddett says
I came across your article by accident whilst looking for references to the Klais Organ in the Esplanade Concert Hall. As I was a member of one of the choirs at St Andrew’s Cathedral for many years and worshipped there until 2019, I have to say there are a number of points that I would not totally agree with in regards to the organ in St Andrew’s. However, I do not claim to be an expert in these matters so I suggest that if you are in Singapore again you might try to find out more from Dr Margaret Chen who was Music Director at St Andrews for a number of years, organist for the SSO and involved in the building of the Klais organ in the Esplanade. I also recommend that you attend the 8.00am service at St Andrew’s where you can hear the newly refurbished organ and talk to the present music director Dr Lim Chin Kai. Whilst the service is more “Evangelical” than you may be used to, the AGO organised a traditional Anglican evensong at the Cathedral last year. Who knows, you might even enjoy it and find it up-lifting. Dr Chen has also recorded a CD on Priory records of music played on the Klais organ. All this is of course subject to what can be done under present restrictions! All the best.
Richard Goodall says
Many thanks for your message and your interest in the blog. My comments about the St Andrew’s organ were based on what I found online, so apologies if anything was incorrect. Obviously I mainly wanted to write about the exciting organs I had been privileged to hear and play in a short space of time. I am aware of Dr Chen’s involvement with the SSO and Klais organ, and it would certainly be a pleasure to meet her if I am fortunate enough to visit Singapore in the future. I’m delighted to hear Choral Evensong is taking place occasionally, and I have seen that the local AGO is active, which is very heartening. But, sadly, it seems Dr Chen’s CD is no longer available on the Priory website.
Every good wish, Richard.
John Graham Bones says
If you are visiting Singapore again you may wish to visit Freemasons’ Hall (by appointment with the Hall Board Management) at 23A Coleman Street, which is only a short walk from St. Andrew’s Cathedral. At Freemasons’ Hall there is an unit / extension pipe organ originally built and installed by J W Walker & Sons in 1970 and restored, overhauled, and upgraded by Organ Builders Harrison & Harrison of Durham in 2015.
I would be interested to hear your comments on this Organ which as an amateur I have played many times during my residence in Singapore from 1980 to 2019. I am now retired in the UK. Many thanks and regards, John Bones