This interview was conducted online earlier this year (2021), when Benjamin had just returned from Chicago. He was on his fifth day of the mandatory Stay-Home-Notice imposed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. He was interviewed by John Fung, current oboe player with the SNYO.
JF: What about the scariest moment in your life?
BG: Ah, playing the Mahler 1 solo on the double bass. I played that with SNYO. I was so scared. I did a horrible job by the way, because I was so nervous. (laughs) But it was a lesson on nerves.
(‘Mahler 1’ = Mahler’s Symphony No. 1)
JF: Happiest moment of your life?
BG: Graduating from New York University (NYU) in 2015, at the Yankee Stadium. The moment was special because just a few years before then, I didn’t think I would have the chance to go to university. So that was quite an emotional, happy moment for me.
JF: Favourite composer?
BG: Ooh, Mahler.
JF: Favourite musical work?
BG: Mahler 5.
JF: We have the same answers to both questions!
BG: No way, I actually just got to play it finally and I was very happy.
JF: What have you been watching lately?
BG: Stephen Colbert (an American comedian).
JF: Have you been listening to anything lately?
BG: Yes, I’ve been listening to Mandopop (Mandarin Pop). JJ Lin (Singaporean singer) is great!
JF: Your go-to food?
BG: Key lime pie at PS.Cafe. It’s nice, I like it.
JF: You’re more of a sweet tooth?
BG: Actually not really, it’s just the key lime pie that I like. I’m actually a huge gyoza fan.
JF: You were in SNYO from 2005 to 2012 playing the double bass?
JF: Your most memorable moment from SNYO?
BG: Hmm, we had a bunch of tours which were great. We went to Italy, went to Berlin and we went to Aberdeen.
JF: Can’t be Mahler 1.
BG: (laughs) No, not at all. the SNYO residential camps were great too. Dancing to Jai Ho at one of the SNYO residential camps held at the CCAB at Evans Road.
(‘CCAB’ = Co-Curricular Activities Branch)
JF: Funny stories from your time at SNYO?
BG: There was a time when the double bass section was bigger than the cello section. And I always found that very funny. We had 10 double basses at one point. I was Principal Double Bass at that time, and it was quite funny because the double basses always had to play softer. I couldn’t tell some of them to go home so we had to adapt.
JF: If you didn’t play the double bass, what would you play?
BG: I would’ve wanted to play the horn. Inspired by Hans Zimmer.
JF: Again, we have the same answer.
BG: No way! (laughs)
JF: Tell me about yourself, where you are now.
BG: After SNYO, I thought about doing a music career but decided against that. For me, because my family was not particularly wealthy, so I had to decide between a music career or getting a government scholarship to do something not music related. So I took up the scholarship, studied Economics and Political Science at NYU. NYU was chosen so I could be close to the arts scene. When I was there, I joined the New York Youth Symphony and performed at Carnegie Hall. To me, that was really what I wanted, to play with people and perform overseas. So I didn’t do a music degree, but managed to remain involved with music. By then, that pushed me on a different path professionally, I got interested in Cyberwarfare. So I’m currently working on Cybersecurity Strategy.
JF: And are you still playing music now?
BG: Not in the last 2 years, but I was part of Orchestra Collective.
JF: If you didn’t study Economics and Political Science, what would you have studied?
BG: I would’ve studied music, definitely.
JF: What was most challenging about being in SNYO?
BG: In school I was actually the Basketball captain. The largest challenge for me was switching the mindset between the two activities. SNYO was always after Basketball trainings, Thursday 3 to 6pm was Basketball and SNYO was from 7 to 9pm. Saturdays 8 to 11am was Basketball and 2.30 to 5.30pm was SNYO. Preparing myself mentally and physically for the switch between Basketball and SNYO was challenging. After Basketball and the weight training my hands would always be shaking. So when I went to YO, I had to relax my arms to play and I always had to do lots of extra stretching beforehand and (laughs) no one really understood why I had to do that.
JF: What did you do to overcome this challenge in changing mindsets?
BG: (chuckles) Just have to do it.
JF: What have you taken away from SNYO that you find useful now?
BG: A proper appreciation of classical music. I suppose many people just look at classical music as calming without really looking at what the music is trying to convey. And I guess SNYO helped me to look at it from a different perspective. In school during MEP (Music Elective Programme) classes, I looked at classical music from a theoretical standpoint. But I learnt from SNYO how to notice the different parts talking to each other, and I began noticing parts that I couldn’t hear in recordings. I always experienced a “there’s this part?” moment.
JF: Do you have a favourite performance with SNYO?
BG: Yes! This was in Berlin, the Young Euro Classic Series (an international music festival for youth orchestras). We played Kelly Tang’s Symphonic Suite on a Set of Local Tunes. I remember this because it was my last tour with SNYO before I left for the US in August 2012. I was going to leave Singapore because I did not particular enjoy studying in Singapore at that point and was looking forward to study overseas. In this foreign country, playing local Singaporean tunes made me miss and love Singapore. And so proud that we received a standing ovation from our German audience. Not that they can understand Di Tanjong Katong (a Singaporean folk song), but appreciated that it was nice. It gave me an immense amount of pride, love and feeling of tenderness for Singapore. It reminded me that I will feel dearly for Singapore, even though it is hard to admit sometimes.
JF: Favourite recording of a piece of music or perhaps favourite conductor?
BG: Daniel Barenboim. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. I’ve actually met him in person, it was amazing. He was there to commemorate the death of Edward Said. Said and Barenboim co-founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Edward was a professor at Colombia University and had just passed on. So Barenboim flew in to do a concert and he played Schubert’s Trout Quintet. It was amazing, I’ve never heard anything like it.
JF: Perhaps you could share a story about a friendship you’ve developed in SNYO?
BG: My desk partner, Tedson, we met through SNYO when I was 13 or 14 years old. We are still in close contact, we meet every month. We both are not professional musicians, but still keep in touch, play mahjong together, drink together, sing karaoke together. I’ve known him for more than half my life. Another friend of mine, Jeremy, we’ve been in touch since then. We’ve grown up with each other, I care a lot for his perspective and he cares a lot about mine too. Just today, I was falling sick because of the hotel water, so Jeremy is actually coming by later to drop off some water and vitamins. So yeah, I think we’ve been close for the last 16 years, it’s crazy. Also, one of the flautists at SNYO during my time there got married in Turkey a couple of years ago, and a bunch of us from SNYO actually flew to Turkey to be there at her wedding. Not even in Singapore, we actually flew to Turkey!
JF: Last question, could you describe SNYO in 3 words?
BG: Make lifelong friends.
Note: The interviewer, was carried as a 5-year-old by Benjamin Goh while BG was on tour with SNYO in Fukuoka, Japan. BG was astonished when he discovered that that very same 5-year-old was the one interviewing him in 2021.