Issue 133 | Apr-Jun 2023

Turning up the tempo

Professor Peter Tornquist, Dean of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, shares his vision to move the school from being excellent to exceptional.

Like most musicians, Professor Peter Tornquist developed a love for music at a very young age. “The idea of just listening to music, going to concerts or even going to church, singing and playing instruments, had been one of my biggest inspirations,” the Dean of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music (YST) says. 

But his decision to pursue a career in music came relatively late while he was exploring university degree options at 17. He started his pre‑college education in architecture before switching to music. “Architecture is very similar to music as it’s also a lot of technical stuff,” Prof Tornquist, 59, says. “Like architecture, music requires you to know your materials and to have skills, although music is also an aesthetic sensation and experience.”

A graduate of London’s Royal College of Music, Prof Tornquist has been awarded Honorary Fellowships by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the Royal Northern College of Music for his services to music. An important lesson that stuck with him is that nothing in life or the arts is one‑dimensional. “So when you pursue learning, you have to look at it from different angles because there are always different perspectives,” he adds. 

As a top music composer and educator, Prof Tornquist also attempts to break down the walls between the creative and thinking processes and the execution of music, so that these become more interconnected. Speaking from his experience as a composer, he shares, “Traditionally, the role of the composer has been to provide performers with something to play while the performers make this come alive for the audience,” he explains. “But it creates a silo, even though both roles are necessary to create the musical experience.”

He hopes musicians can be empowered to take full ownership in realising their artistic voices — a philosophy he also applies to his teaching and leadership roles. “It’s not about what I know as a teacher, professor or dean,” he says. “It’s to what degree I can make my students, staff and faculty own their ideas, so they transmit them more wholeheartedly.” 

As a man constantly seeking a lyrical adventure, Prof Tornquist decided to leave Norway — where he was the Principal of the Norwegian Academy of Music from 2013 to 2021 — for Singapore when the opportunity at YST arose. “The centre of the world used to be somewhere between the United States and Europe. But that has slowly changed, and the world is now moving eastward,” notes Prof Tornquist, whose compositions have been performed by the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Tokyo Symphony Orchestra and London Sinfonietta. 

Making the right transitions

In the digital era, Prof Tornquist notes that a successful musician needs multiple skill sets. He or she should be good in at least three areas of music‑making and be world-class in two other areas. For instance, one could be a good performer, composer or producer, while also excelling in teaching, social media or entrepreneurship. “We see these multiple skill sets within and beyond music as a trait of successful young professionals today,” he says. “Building on our foundation of excellence in music-making, we are strengthening this drive towards interdisciplinary education and giving our students the space to develop several skills at the same time.” 

While he thinks Singapore has a vibrant and healthy music scene, some gaps must still be bridged. “For example, a good portion of the high talent playing musical instruments from a young age choose not to study music, and study medicine, engineering or law instead,” says Prof Tornquist. “There is still some resistance to making music your choice of education. We need to make sure the music talent pipeline from YST into Singapore can become stronger, and we are working on this.”

Prof Tornquist also wants the arts to be more present in the academic lives of NUS students. Music, after all, can enhance our learning and cognitive capabilities. For example, playing music with others in a pop band can boost our communication and negotiation skills. “Developing that passion for music translates into a skill set that makes them better future professionals, and more fulfilled individuals.”

We also need to cater for exceptional talent and cast a wider net in our recruitment drive, regardless of their cultural or stylistic background.

Tuning in to a broader talent pool

Since taking up his new role at YST in February 2022, Prof Tornquist has enjoyed meeting many passionate people with an innovative mindset and a “can-do” spirit. “I’m enjoying how vibrant this city-nation is and how international the community at NUS and especially YST is,” he says.

As YST celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, Prof Tornquist says it is vital for the school to leverage its strong faculty and be responsive to the changes in the global music scene. “My vision is for us to move from being excellent to exceptional,” he says. “To shape the future, we need to educate musicians that bring something else to the mix other than simply being very good at playing an instrument. We also need to cater for exceptional talent and cast a wider net in our recruitment drive, regardless of their cultural or stylistic background.” 

When he is not working, Prof Tornquist enjoys reading non-fiction books on history and philosophy. He also enjoys running and taking long walks in the Green Corridor, Southern Ridges and MacRitchie Reservoir. “I also love food, so once a month, I invite my faculty and younger staff to show me their favourite hawker centres,” says Prof Tornquist, who has tried everything from the standard chicken rice to more exotic items like pig’s brain. 

“The food in Singapore is such an interesting representation of the nation’s cultural diversity with its mix of influences resulting in a slightly different version of Indian, Malay, Chinese, Japanese and Korean food,” he adds. “There’s a Singaporean flavour to everything, and that’s also what I see in the people and the culture here.” 

The beat goes on

The packed calendar of musical events, held in celebration of YST’s 20th anniversary, was a music lover’s dream come true.

  1. Kicking things off last August was the week-long “Looking back, Moving Forward” festival. This was a showcase of illustrious international musicians, including the Calefax Quintet, a reed-playing ensemble from the Netherlands, and the Boston Brass from the United States, backed by the YST Orchestral Institute and performing epic film scores from blockbusters such as Jurassic Park and Star Wars. 
  2. After a long absence of four years due to COVID-19, the Voyage Festival returned, bringing together YST alumni for a special homecoming. In five concerts over two days, the talented musicians and singers shared the spotlight as they played a diverse selection of music. 
  3. On 8 April 2023 at the YST Conservatory Concert Hall, the gala concert, “Orchestral Institute x YST Chamber Singers and Voice Majors: A Gala for Creation”, brought to life the timeless music of Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn’s 1798 oratorio, Die Schöpfung (The Creation)
  4. In September, the Conservatory will hold its fundraising gala dinner. On 28 October 2023, YST will premiere the Southeast Asian Golden Age Symphony, a fresh new commission by seven young composers across Southeast Asia.
Text by Audrina Gan
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