Listen to this article
Melvyn Tan has a member of Qantas cabin crew in the 1960s to thank for his long association with London. The pianist and fortepiano specialist, who grew up in Singapore, has been a familiar figure in England’s classical music scene for decades. He has appeared as a recitalist and chamber musician in London’s Wigmore Hall and as concert soloist with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
To meet him at his Notting Hill home — which he shares with partner Paul Boucher, the violinist and chamber musician — it is hard to imagine a life originally rooted in the equatorial bustle and heat of 1950s Singapore, which was then still under British colonial rule.
Indeed, Tan’s trajectory from Asia to an elegant home on the edge of Kensington Park Gardens may well not have happened if it had not been for the unnamed family friend who flew with the Australian airline in the 1960s.
“Qantas was on a worldwide strike and she was stranded in Singapore,” says Tan, 58, as he settles into a seat in his garden overlooking Ladbroke Square Garden, one of the largest private residential green spaces in London. “So she came to a concert that I was playing in, a little ‘house concert’ my music teacher was holding, and happened to sit next to my sister. And she said: ‘Who’s this sweet little boy?’”
As it turned out, this was more than casual interest. The woman, a keen concertgoer, was so taken by the young Tan’s playing that she persuaded his parents to enrol him at the Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey. She even went as far as to hand deliver a demonstration tape of Tan’s playing to the school on one of her Qantas flights to the UK, to persuade the school to consider his application.
Arriving in London in 1969 to start his tuition aged 12, Tan immediately fell in love with the city and he has lived here ever since.
So how has London’s classical music scene changed? “Well, there were fewer concerts [in those days], obviously, but they were extraordinary. We went to hear people like [pianist Arthur] Rubinstein. I heard Rubinstein several times live. And then I remember the English National Opera was doing groundbreaking productions of Wagner.”
London’s position as one of the richest spots on the planet for music has resonance for Tan, especially through the original instrument movement. This appeared, in part, as a reaction to the modernist tonality in the 1950s and 1960s and a desire to go back to the original sounds of the baroque and classical periods. Tan made his mark with the fortepiano.
“Even in the ’80s and ’90s, when I started doing music on original instruments — apart from Holland, which started the movement — Britain was really the only other place that produced the sort of music that made people listen to you.
“And even now, I would say that the whole movement is still extremely strong. In fact, it’s stronger now than it was because it’s become more mainstream. So many, many more people are listening to it and it’s not thought of as all about Birkenstock sandals and Indian prints,” he says.
The creation of a new type of piano with straight, parallel strings by the pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim — unveiled in London in May — provides further evidence of a continuing fascination for music played on instruments that would have been familiar to composers and their audiences hundreds of years ago.
“Look at Barenboim, having this new piano made, because he was so enamoured with [composer Franz] Liszt’s old piano. So it’s interesting how far this movement has gone.”
By the time he was 18, Tan was at the Royal College of Music. By curious coincidence his piano teacher at the time lived in a bedsit a few doors down on the same street where he now lives, “so I’ve known this street since I first came to London”, says Tan.
Notting Hill in the early 1970s was “very, very down at heel and everyone had gas meters, and all that sort of thing”, he adds. “When I came, in those days, no one wanted to live here. Now it’s got terribly posh.
“And then, of course, the people who can afford to buy their places are now bankers.” Some of them are also buyers from Asia, specifically Singapore, meaning a healthy chunk of Asian money is now invested in London property. It is a fact that Tan notes with what sounds, for a moment, like a guilty laugh.
“My cousin’s the worst,” he says. “She’s got two properties, or three. And she’s small fry. She’s only got studio flats. Some other friends, they buy three-bedroom apartments and rent them out for a fortune,” he says.
Yet the musician’s long association with his adoptive home has its roots in a darker set of events originating in Singapore. The city-state, tightly governed by the same ruling party since Tan was a boy, insists that able-bodied males aged 18 sign up for two years of national service in the military. Refuseniks can face up to three years in jail and a fine of about S$10,000 (£4,700).
Tan became eligible as he was starting his musical career in London, but knowing that he would likely be arrested if he returned to Singapore, he decided to stay in Britain and eventually took citizenship. Relations between Tan and the Singapore authorities went into deep freeze. Yet the prospect of never being able to visit his ageing parents — or of making his concert debut in Singapore — prompted Tan to return in 2005 to face court with the help of a lawyer who successfully negotiated the payment of a fine instead of a jail term.
“Overnight, all these doors opened, which I actually found quite strange. Because for years, all the doors were closed. I just did not exist. And those were the years, really, in which I built up an international career, a very good career promoting the fortepiano and making people listen to familiar music in a new way.”
The development paved the way for Tan’s triumphant return at a packed concert at Singapore’s Esplanade in 2011. He has returned regularly since, most recently this year to perform and teach as artist-in-residence at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music.
The reconciliation of the former “sweet little boy” and his native country has taken place, appropriately, against a backdrop of a recent flourishing of the arts in Singapore, which has started to relax its previously restrictive approach. Small theatre groups are performing material that would have been unthinkable a decade ago and the cultural vibe is looser. Equally appropriately, this year has seen artistic and other links between Singapore and London highlighted as part of the city-state’s year-long celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of its independence.
Singapore was a central feature of this year’s City of London Festival, at which Tan performed with Singapore’s T’ang Quartet. A return trip to Singapore is set for this month, where he will rejoin the string quartet for a concert at the Victoria Concert Hall, built in 1905 and reopened last year after a restoration involving the London design firm Arup.
So what does Tan make of the legions of Asian musicians that are making their careers in London these days?
“Well, a lot of them are trained very well, technically, but as far as making a career, I think it’s still the same. You have to have something really special say, to go further than just being a technician. I found my niche in discovering the sound of old pianos and trying to make the music sound different or more close to the way the composers heard them. So I always say to students: you have to find something, a niche. But finding that niche is quite difficult.”
What you can buy . . . in Singapore
$1.5m A two-bedroom apartment in a high-rise building designed by Zaha Hadid in District 10
$2.5m A four-bedroom apartment in the centre of town, with access to a gym, pool and tennis court
$9.5m A four-bedroom penthouse with sea views in the heart of the East Coast
● The island’s size makes it easy to get around — and there are trees everywhere
● The city puts a lot of money into the arts, which means there are many beautiful theatres, concert halls and museums
● The food definitely, with cuisine now available from all over the world
● It is very expensive
● The growing population means there is more traffic on the roads
● The heat. If it were 5C cooler it would be heaven on earth
● The Asian Civilisations Museum has been beautifully restored and hosts interesting exhibitions and concerts
● Tiong Bahru Market reminds me of my childhood although it’s much cleaner now
● The Singapore Swimming Club. Some of my family are members so I get to swim in the most wonderful Olympic-sized pools
What you can buy . . . in Notting Hill
£750,000 A two-bedroom flat in a semi-detached villa, north of Notting Hill
£1.25m A two-bedroom flat with a roof terrace in a Victorian house with a communal garden
£3.25m A three-bedroom terraced house with a separate lower-ground-floor flat, and a front and back garden
● Portobello Market for its diversity
● The wonderful amount of green space
● The location. You can get anywhere in the city without much trouble
● From being a place where people would have thought twice about moving to a few decades ago, Notting Hill is now a highly desirable part of London. The feel of the neighbourhood has changed
● Lack of parking
● Huge rents are forcing smaller businesses out, to be replaced by chichi boutiques
● Clarke’s restaurant on Kensington Church Street serves unpretentious and delicious food
● Lutyens & Rubinstein on Kensington Park Road. You wish you could buy every book in the shop
● Melt, a local chocolatier. It can be too much of a good thing so I go sparingly
Jeremy Grant is a former Singapore correspondent for the FT
Photographs: Hal Shinnie; Getty Images; Horace Bristol/Hulton Archive; Chris Steele-Perkins/Magnum Photos; Paul Boucher