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Leong Yoon Pin has been a leading figure in Singapore’s cultural scene for the past thirty years. Educated as a music lecturer as well as composer, Leong received the AGSM and GCSM diplomas from the Guildhall School of Music in London. He also holds an M. Ed. degree from the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne in music education, and in 1967, left for Paris to study with world-renowned musician-cum-composer, Nadia Boulangar.
Starting off essentially as a self-taught musician, Leong Yoon Pin came from humble beginnings. With limited opportunities to develop himself musically, Leong had to teach himself to play the piano, obtaining scores from old classical records owned by his father and piano books from his aunt.
It was only much later, however, when Leong was given formal piano lessons under a renowned South African pianist. Since then, Leong has carved out an illustrious musical career, and an impressive collection of national accolades.
Widely known for his choral and symphonic works, Leong Yoon Pin has documented Singapore’s cultural progression predominantly through observations of famous local customs and affairs in the region. Adding a unique touch to his music, Leong has succeeded in creating an authentic local representation of Singapore’s culture, one that instills a strong sense of national identity in Singapore. Leong’s works have once been termed by the Singapore Chinese Newspaper as “Compositions with a Strong and Unique Local Character”, since many of his works incorporate distinct Singaporean sounds and accents. Fusing local culture and 20th Century composition styles, Leong has managed to compose traditional songs with a striking sense of modernity.
Quoting the words of Lan Shui, music director of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO), “When you think of Singapore’s music scene, the first name that comes to mind is Leong Yoon Pin. He’s not only a wonderful composer … his music is so connected with the people in Singapore. He helped take the local music scene to great heights.”
One famous example is the overture Dayong Sampan, where Leong Yoon Pin developed a traditional Malay folk theme into a full-length orchestral work. In it, distant drums, horns and bassoons contrasted with the strings and woodwind sections to create a cheerful mood, cleverly disguised as a “western” whole or form, yet still reflective of our own cultural heritage (Purushothaman, 2002). Such a work, targeted at home-grown Singapore citizens, could also serve as a highly effective tool in the teaching of culture to the younger generation of youths.
Leong Yoon Pin started composing from a very young age. After graduating from the Teachers’ Training College, or present-day National Institute of Education (NIE), he became an English language teacher. Armed with a strong passion for music and prior knowledge in piano performance, Leong also took up the role of music teacher in the school.
In 1952, Leong was invited to pen the school song of the now defunct Windstedt Primary School. At about the same time, he also received requests from Rediffusion Radio Channel to liven up their musical programme. It was then that Leong built his career as a composer, starting off by composing new songs for the local radio programme.
For a significant period of time, Leong has been commissioned to write, arrange, and edit numerous songs for various educational purposes by the Ministry of Education -- through which he has enriched the musical curriculum of our local schools.
Over the course of his entire career, Leong Yoon Pin has accumulated a portfolio of over 100 instrumental and voice works, numerous symphonic poems, two symphonies, and even an opera, written in collaboration with homegrown poet and cultural medallion awardee Professor Edwin Thumboo.
In 1960, Leong founded the Metro Philharmonic Society (MPS), a musical group which has quickly become one of Singapore’s most active and prominent performance groups over the years. Under his directorship, the Society has given numerous public performances, including premieres of his own works. Since its humble beginnings as a chamber string ensemble, Leong Yoon Pin has, for a period of at least 30 years, been the driving force behind the success of this society. The main chorus continues to perform in various radio and television programmes, schools, community centers, and in annual public concerts staged at the Victoria Concert Hall.
MPS was also one of the pioneers, who, under the directorship of Leong Yoon Pin, introduced the Western Opera to the local musical arena. In 1964 and 1968, Leong staged the complete operas of Mascagni and Smetana in Mandarin respectively, thus expanding the public’s perception of Western classical music as a whole.
By 1969, Leong Yoon Pin was already appointed first Resident Conductor of the Singapore National Orchestra, which later formed the basis of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO), Singapore’s most famous local professional orchestra. In the years that followed, Leong also became head of the Music Department in the Institute of Education, and chairman of the Singapore Composers’ Circle.
1982 marked the year when Leong Yoon Pin was conferred the prestigious Cultural Medallion Award, in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the local musical and cultural scene. The Cultural Medallion Award is the highest arts award in the republic, given out only to artists who have contributed extensively to the formation of a cultural identity in Singapore. Since its institution in 1979 by the late President of Singapore, Mr Ong Teng Cheong, only seventeen have been awarded this coveted medal under the music category.
Leong’s other achievements include serving as music arts advisor to the National Arts Council (NAC); and artistic consultant to the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), the Practice Performing Arts School, and the ‘Substation’, a radio station dedicated to the arts. In addition, Mr. Leong was also appointed SSO’s first composer-in-residence in 2000, and has served in the Choral Advisory Committee and the Singapore Youth Orchestra Management Committee, under the auspices of the Ministry of Education.
Having devoted almost his entire life to the composition and promotion of multi-ethnic locally-produced fusion music, Leong Yoon Pin has certainly played a big role in illustrating the importance of respecting cultural differences in a closely-knit, multi-racial society such as Singapore.
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