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Adventures in Classical Music

Wealth on one side, arts on the other. Lawyer by training, Lionel Choi is both a wealth planner and the founder of Altenburg Arts, a performing arts agency. His double life epitomizes the contemporary classical music industry and serves as a reference for local arts management.

Wealth and art are both eternally exciting topics, but artists mostly don't like to talk about money, making the workings of the arts and culture market quite a mystery. In this issue, we interview the founder of Altenburg Arts, a local performing arts agency, Lionel Choi, to get a glimpse of what lies behind the apparent "fame and fortune" of the classical music industry.

A lawyer by training, Choi has been writing music reviews for The Straits Times since 1997 and was the artistic director of the Singapore International Piano Festival from 2010 to 2018. In his first year, he had the foresight to bring in the then-emerging Yuja Wang; in 2018, he presented two legends in the field, Martha Argerich and Dang Thai Son, before making a magnificent exit. The following year, Altenburg Arts held its inaugural concert and continues to surprise local music fans to this day.


But music is only the B-side of Choi's life after work. By day, he is the Head of Wealth Planning at LGT Bank (Singapore). The bank is the family office of the Princely House of Liechtenstein and the world's largest family-owned private banking and asset management group.


The Princely House of Liechtenstein has been a keen collector and supporter of the arts for centuries - the 13th of Beethoven's 32 Piano Sonatas, known as the "New Testament Bible" in piano literature, was dedicated to the then Princess of Liechtenstein – and therefore very supportive of Choi’s dedication to the local music scene.


Wealth on one side, art on the other. Choi’s double life not only epitomizes the contemporary classical music industry, but also provides a unique case study on arts management in a local context.

Zhang Heyang: You first came into the music industry as a music critic, what do you think is the significance of music criticism?


Lionel Choi: Like most piano kids, I thought Bach was boring and Mozart was just a name when I first started learning piano. It wasn't until I took a special music course in high school that I learned that there was so much more to music than just fingerwork.


When I was 14, I saw a clip in the documentary "Great Conductors of the 20th Century" comparing the opening of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony conducted by Furtwängler and Toscanini, and was deeply moved by the fact that the same score and the same piece could sound very different when interpreted by different people. Since then I have been reading a lot of music reviews, and I realised that music criticism is an entire discipline in itself and that there are people who make a living out of it.


Building Opinions and Tastes from Reviews


So for me, the reviews were a primer to help me develop my own opinion and taste, and to distinguish what is good music-making. Although my opinions may be swayed by reviews in the beginning, once I have gained enough knowledge, experience and independent thinking, I started to have my own aesthetics and position.


Music criticism is also a channel for the public to communicate with the artist, representing voices from different perspectives. Therefore, it is normal for a concert to have very different reviews, and only when there is feedback will there be progress. Of course, it is entirely the artist's freedom to accept it or not, and how he or she should respond.

Zhang: Why did you start Altenburg Arts and what was your vision?


Choi: After I stepped down as Artistic Director of the Singapore International Piano Festival in 2018, I felt it would be a shame to let go of the contacts and experience I had built up in the industry, and that the classical music scene in Singapore had much room for growth, so I incorporated Altenburg Arts.


The Singapore Symphony Orchestra is a leader in the local classical music industry, inviting the world's best musicians to perform locally every year. But it is only natural that all their programmes are predominantly symphonic. Altenburg Arts is therefore positioned to curate solo recital and small-scale chamber music performances to enrich the local classical music event calendar.


It is also important to our vision of a world class city. After the gradual re-opening since the pandemic, Singapore will become increasingly international, welcoming a new wave of high-end talent and high-net-worth individuals. For them, infrastructure is not just about airports and highways; cultural life and an arts scene are equally important.


In cities like London and Berlin, there is an overwhelming choice of artistic performances to choose from, daily, so it is always good to present more artistic styles and choices for the Singapore public.

Is it profitable to present classical music concerts?


Zhang: Is it a profitable business to present classical music concerts in Singapore?


Choi: Rather than make money, I've saved money by not doing concerts for the past two years because of the pandemic. (laughs)


The market in Singapore is small and there is no economy of scale in the region. You can hardly convince a European or American maestro to fly more than 20 hours round-trip to Southeast Asia and play just one concert in Singapore.


And it's hard to break even on any concert without sponsorship, and I am terrible when it comes to asking for money and selling tickets… so Altenburg Arts concerts are all personally funded by me, and then I pray that the ticketing revenue will pay for the concerts themselves. If they run at a loss, I will just write it off as if it were money spent on a hobby.


That said, Altenburg Arts' programming is not based on my personal preferences, much less my personal playlist. Which musicians are invited and what repertoire they choose is a matter of public responsibility to the local classical music community. So before inviting any musician, the quality of his music-making and his sincerity are what I value most, followed by the artist’s repute and popularity. If it were just about ticket sales, I could invite the most "internet famous" performers and everyone would make money, but that's not what I want.


The planning of each concert consumes a lot of my energy and time - after all, there are only two people at Altenburg Arts, Jimmy and I. I'm a financier, a planner, and a salesman - and I don't have a KPI (performance target) to produce a minimum number of concerts each year. As such, I expect myself to do my utmost best to showcase performers of the highest quality, and hopefully give the audience an unforgettable musical experience.

Zhang: Why should we listen to live concerts in the age of mobile media? Are you optimistic about the future of classical music?


Choi: The impact of short videos is indeed great, the attention span of modern people is probably... less than 10 seconds? But I think this trend has bottomed out, and at least I'm consciously running away from my phone now. I am optimistic that humanity will usher in a new renaissance.


Because people will rediscover that the appeal of art is hidden in the details, just like you can't finish appreciating a world famous painting in just a few seconds; I have half an hour to listen to music almost every day, not as background music, but intently.


Compared to listening to a perfect recording at home, going to a live performance is an adventure: whether the performer is in good form, whether there will be accidents, etc. And it is because of this sense of adventure that you have to engage with the experience with all your heart and mind. The performer on stage and the audience off-stage don't speak to each other, but they can sense each other’s energy, of the occasion, of the room, and respond to it through the music, and that's the beauty of a live concert.


Last Friday night, after a recital by Kit Armstrong, an audience member left me a message saying that it was the best piano recital he had ever heard. This is exactly what I hope for: for Altenburg Arts to be a trusted brand – you may not have heard of the name of the performer, but because it’s presented by Altenburg Arts, you want to come into the concert hall and take a chance with us in the musical journey.


I'm sure the upcoming Wednesday night recital by Anton Gerzenberg is bound to bring some nice surprises for local audiences as well.

(This is a machine translation, with light-touch edits for accuracy, of a piece published in Chinese in Lianhe Zaobao, Singapore, on 11 June 2022.)

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