After 4 years of lying in wait due to the pandemic, the Singapore National Youth Chinese Orchestra (SNYCO) brings its 20th anniversary concert series finale, Ascend, to East Malaysia! The main programme, finely curated by our Music Director Mr Quek Ling Kiong, includes both local and Malaysian compositions, notably Legend of Badang by Singaporean composer Koh Cheng Jin and Izpirazione II by Malaysian composer Mr Simon Kong Su Leong. The repertoire also features the strengths of each instrumental section through ensemble works like Wang Danhong’s Dynamic Plucked Strings by the plucked strings section and Zhang Lie’s Waters of the Yellow River by the winds and percussion section.

On this trip, SNYCO performs a total of 3 concerts, each with varying programmes catered to the different performance locations and exchange activities with the Chinese orchestras in East Malaysia. This sums up to 12 unique pieces to tackle through weekly rehearsals in the span of 2 months, what an exciting challenge for us musicians to conquer. 

2 December 2023: Pre-Tour Concert Ascend

Before we depart for East Malaysia, we presented a pre-tour concert at SCO Concert Hall for the local audiences. Aside from showcasing the pieces that we will be performing overseas to our parents and friends, this was also an opportunity for us to assess our performances and note down areas of improvement before the trip. No amount of prep work is enough especially since most of us have never been to East Malaysia and generally have no concept of what awaited us there. The tips and encouragement from our Teacher Artists, who came down specially to support our pre-tour concert, helped to quell some of our fears as we headed into the final phase of preparations.

huayue snyco tour 20231202 Section Photo with Ms Xu Wenjing

Our Teacher Artist, Ms Xu Wenjing, met us after our pre-tour concert for a SNYCO Gaohu section photo! 

4 December 2023: Packing

One of the most daunting parts of going on a concert tour is the packing of our precious instruments, whose safety are of utmost importance as they are the vessels of our music. The whole orchestra works together with the management team to bundle everything after our final night rehearsal, as we pray that our instruments survive the flights…
huayue snyco tour 20231204 Packing

We packed our gaohus into cargo boxes like this, with lots and lots of sponge for maximum protection!

6 December 2023: Take off!

Our first mission upon landing in Kota Kinabalu was to unpack our instruments and check that everything was in order. Before deep-diving into business, we stopped by the bustling Filipino market for some local sights and smells of freshly fried street food. We were treated to a scrumptious seafood feast for dinner and it made us feel very welcome indeed on our first night in Sabah.

huayue snyco tour 20231206 Scenery of jetty at Filipino Market

We stumbled upon this tranquil corner of the Filipino market where the boats are stowed, with a beautiful unblocked view of the sea!

huayue snyco tour 20231206 Filipino Market

The fragrance of the fried food on display is very tempting!

7 December 2023: Sabah Ethnic Music Festival 2023 Opening Concert (Kota Kinabalu, Sabah)

The series of tour performances kick-started with Sabah Ethnic Music Festival 2023 Opening Concert, where we performed “Izpirazione II” for the audience at University Malaysia Sabah. It felt special as we learnt that Sabah is the hometown of the composer Mr Simon Kong, as well as of the fruit “tarap”, from which one of the movements in the piece gets its name! Apart from visiting us during rehearsal to offer his moral support, Mr Kong specially brought along some tarap for us to try. It was really cool as we heard that the tarap was not in season at that time! Having the chance to taste the tarap before performing the piece really helped us to get a clearer impression of the sentiments behind the notes that we have been playing and would be performing that evening. The fruit “tarap” is much like Mr Kong’s “Tarap” – a fusion of many elements that dance across the tongue, with a flesh similar to that of mangosteen and a flavour reminiscent of jackfruit. Discussions over how to accurately describe the taste of the tarap then ensue among us as none of the suggested comparisons do justice to this very unique sensory experience. The sweetness of the tarap lingers throughout the rest of the evening as we complete our first show of the tour smoothly, marking the start of the Sabah Ethnic Music Festival 2023.
huayue snyco tour 20231207 Tarap from Mr Simon Kong

The taraps Mr Simon Kong brought were placed outside our rehearsal venue for all the members to try!

8 December 2023: Rehearsals for Sabah Ethnic Music Festival 2023 Closing Concert (Kota Kinabalu, Sabah)

The next two days of combined orchestra rehearsals with students from different school Chinese orchestras in Sabah is for the closing concert of the Music Festival. Though one might think that being on a concert tour means all work and no play, we had the opportunity to spend the mornings sightseeing at different attractions before attending afternoon and night rehearsals.

Our sightseeing began at the city area, where we stopped by the Yayasan Tower and the Sabah City Mosque for pictures. We then roamed around in the Sabah Museum, admiring the ethnic costumes donned by the different Sabahan tribes and immersing in the rich cultural context of the land we were in. Reading more about the history of the headhunting practices and seeing the Sabahan music instruments up close helped us better understand the inspirations for Mr Simon Kong’s composition.

huayue snyco tour 20231208 Sabah Mosque

The Kota Kinabalu City Mosque looks like it is floating because of the surrounding water!

As we headed into rehearsals that afternoon, we were awestruck by the setup of chairs that spanned both across and below the stage, making room for a mega orchestra of 300 musicians. Much to my surprise, I was entrusted with the role of concertmaster for the combined orchestra. Standing on the podium to take 300 people through the tuning process while everyone was still getting acquainted was a test of my courage and leadership skills. Aside from rehearsing a relatively newer piece under Mr Quek, we spent the rest of the day stretching our mental reflexes as we adapt to different styles of conducting and get used to the acoustic effect of the huge orchestra, under Sabahan conductors Mr Teo Seng Chong, Mr Teo Yee Peng and Ms Chan Sam Nie. The Sabahan conductors patiently guided us through each piece and encouraged us to pick up good rehearsal habits from one another. With the help of the friendly teachers and students there, we were able to settle down relatively quickly. Though shyness got the better of us at first, most of us eventually eased ourselves into small talk with the Sabahan counterparts around us by nightfall.

huayue snyco tour 20231208 Rehearsal 300

300 people in action during rehearsals, under the baton of conductor Mr Teo Seng Chong!

9 December 2023: Rehearsals for Sabah Ethnic Music Festival 2023 Closing Concert (Kota Kinabalu, Sabah)

We spent our subsequent morning at the Mari Mari Cultural Village, which was packed with loads of fun as we were led around the traditional houses of the various Sabahan tribes to appreciate the intricate differences in the way they incorporated natural resources in their ways of living. Each house tour included interactive cultural activities and freshly made food unique to that respective tribe, keeping all our senses fully engaged. The final stop was a show of the traditional dances of Sabah, most memorably the Magunatip, during which the performers step between horizontal moving bamboo poles on the ground. Our visit ended with wild cheers as some of the braver members, along with our music director Mr Quek, joined the dance on stage.

Over the course of rehearsals later throughout the day, we warmed up to our Malaysian section mates and discovered more about the Chinese orchestral music scene in Sabah. It was then that we realised that most of the Malaysian students picked up the ropes from their seniors and were rarely exposed to professional guidance on performance techniques and instrument care. Opportunities to perform and watch others perform were comparatively sparse and hence treasured. Their admiration for the resources we had access to in Singapore led us to think about how fortunate we were to be tutored directly by musicians from the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, and how we had platforms like the Singapore Youth Festival Arts Presentation and the Singapore Chinese Music Competition to sharpen our skills. The passion and dedication that the Sabahan students hold in their pursuit of Chinese music greatly humbled and inspired us as we reflect on how we could improve on our attitudes as Chinese music students and performers. On this note, we took the initiative to share graciously about the what we learnt from our instrumental teachers so that the Malaysians may benefit from the knowledge. It was challenging to coordinate the music by 300 people, eventually the parts fell into place.

huayue snyco tour 20231210 Sabah Gaohu Section Selfie Concert Day

Section photo with our fellow Sabahan gaohu comrades who fought with us through 3 days of rehearsals!

10 December 2023: Sabah Ethnic Music Festival 2023 Closing Concert (Kota Kinabalu, Sabah)

Rehearsal time flew by as we geared up for closing concert. The most interesting part of this concert was the showcase by the various Sabahan school Chinese orchestras, where we observed their rehearsal and performance procedures. The students, mainly from primary and secondary schools, put up spirited performances, some of which were performed impressively from memory. Their vibrance gave us a morale boost for the items that followed. Performing alongside 300 other people was a breathtaking experience – the strength in numbers amplified the beauty of making music with musicians from different regions. At the end of the concert, the conductors made their closing speeches. I spoke a few words too as the appointed concertmaster of the combined orchestra. Gathering my thoughts on the joys we shared over the past few days, I thanked the audience for their support and the orchestra for their cooperation. With this concert, the Sabah Ethnic Music Festival 2023 closed on a rewarding high, celebrating the painstaking effort from all the parties that made this international collaboration a success.

12 December 2023: Ascend concert in the Majma Event & Convention Centre (Kuching, Sarawak)

After spending an entire day in transit from Sabah to Sarawak, we headed into the beautiful Majma Event & Convention Centre at Kuching for our final concert of the tour, where we present repertoire from our pre-tour concert, much like what we did for our first show in Kota Kinabalu. This time, we performed the pre-planned encore item in appreciation for the warm applause after the last piece. With the enthusiastic cheers growing louder, our Music Director Mr Quek spontaneously responded by getting us to perform one of the other pieces we had on hand as a second encore, catching all of us by surprise (some of the members did not have scores for said piece on stage!). In stunned amazement, we pulled off the second encore and had such a blast for our final show, thanks to the audience who were hyping us up so much in that moment! huayue snyco tour concert 3

SNYCO in performance during our Kuching concert!

13 December 2023: Exchange with Chinese orchestras (Kuching, Sarawak)

Our last day in East Malaysia began with sightseeing at the Sarawak Cultural Village. Just like what we did at the cultural village in Kota Kinabalu, we explored the various houses, activities, music instruments and food from the different tribes in Kuching. There was an indoor cultural performance of the traditional dances as well, with some SNYCO members going on stage to join the dance. The highlight this time was a performance of sumpit (blowgun) shooting, where an Iban warrior demonstrated his hunting skills by shooting down a few faraway balloons. One of our members was also invited on stage to try out this segment, which was fun to watch!

huayue snyco tour 20231213 Sarawak Cultural Village Entrance

We can catch a glimpse of the surrounding mountains at the entrance of the Sarawak Cultural Village!

huayue snyco tour 20231213 Selfie with Uncle Ah Long at Sarawak Cultural Village

Basking in the sunlight at the Sarawak Cultural Village with SNYCO's stage manager and father figure, our Uncle Ah Long (Mr Lee Leng Hwee)!

We then headed over to Chung Hua Middle School No. 1 for the main music event of the day – the exchange programme between us and the Chinese orchestras in Sarawak. After the opening speech from the guest-of-honour, each participating orchestra took turns to introduce themselves through a showcase of solo and ensemble performances, of which 3 items were from SNYCO. As a performing member of one of these ensembles, this was nerve-wracking to prepare for as our piece was a product completed only from pockets of practice time during the tour itself. Observing how each performance group handled their nerves on the smaller stage up close was the first form of exchange, as we noted the strengths of each item. The adrenaline from the showcase kept us alert in the following academic segment. One of the organising teachers, Mr Albert Chin, held an insightful talk on the interpretations of breath in Chinese music. Our music director, Mr Quek, also generously shared his thoughts on the developments of the Chinese music scene in both Singapore and Malaysia. We were then split into our instrumental groups for sessions with our Sarawakian section mates for combined rehearsals and mutual sharing of our orchestras in greater detail. The sentiments shared by the Sarawakians regarding the environment in which they learn Chinese music largely echoed those of the Sabahans, this sombre reality led us to wish for more time to exchange musical ideas.

huayue snyco tour 20231213 Sarawak Exchange Gaohu Section Selfie

Quick snapshot of the Gaohu section at the Kuching exchange!

As the sun set, all the sections came together for a combined rehearsal with an orchestra size of well over 200 musicians. With the experience from our time in Kota Kinabalu, we found ourselves responding faster to changes and cues in a large orchestra setting. This time, other than rehearsing under Mr Quek's baton, we also had the opportunity to rehearse under the baton of conductor Ms Amelyn Bong, whose birthday we celebrated that day as well! Her radiant energy, together with Mr Quek's jokes, helped to lighten the mood of the combined rehearsal. As we focus on the music, the rehearsal whizzed by, and soon we had to bid our goodbyes. While it was a pity we could not interact with the Kuching musicians as much as we would have liked, it was interesting to witness how much we were able to pick up from each other just through visual and aural cues, and how much we could influence each other through playing the same part side by side. As the programme drew to a close, tokens and Instagram handles were exchanged, allowing us to continue supporting each other in our Chinese music journeys online.

 huayue snyco tour 20231208 SNYCO Gaohu Section Selfie with Mr Quek

We managed to get Mr Quek to hop on the trend and try taking a Gen Z 0.5 selfie with us!

14 December 2023: Home sweet home!

Our 9-day East Malaysia concert tour was eventful, with many surprises and challenges that we navigated through together. Through this collective experience, we learnt so much about and from our friends in Kota Kinabalu and Kuching. We grew stronger as an orchestra, both in terms of technical skill and in terms of our bond as fellow young Chinese orchestral musicians. We were able to fly our flag high overseas with the support of the Music Director, management team, teachers and parents that made this trip possible. I am honoured and thankful to have been given the opportunity to pen down our travels and contribute to the documentation of our journey, especially in our 20th year. Here’s to many more successful concerts and tours as SNYCO continues to work towards establishing itself as a leading youth Chinese orchestra both at home and internationally!


By Koh Yu Jie (SNYCO Co-concertmaster, instrument: Gaohu)

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