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Photo: Singapore Chinese Orchestra.
Ionisers attached to ornamental snake plants in front of the stage improve air circulation with an “ionising curtain” between the performers and audience at a Singapore Chinese Orchestra concert. The idea is to keep people safe from Covid.

I was saddened and surprised the other day when I offended a woman wearing a mask by asking her if she was also vaccinated. We were in a small room where there was little air circulation, and she was there to give me a hearing test.

Sadness was my primary reaction as the question really upset her. But I was also surprised because so many clinics, performance spaces, restaurants, etc. bend over backwards to make patrons feel safe, even if their requests seem unreasonable.

Consider the introduction of snake plants at the Singapore Chinese Orchestra. Toh Wen Li reports for the Straits Times about their role in an unusual air-quality initiative.

“The air was charged with more than just emotion when the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO) staged its first wind concert in months last Saturday (Sept 25).

“As the rousing sounds of the dizi, sheng and suona filled the concert hall, high-tech devices attached to 20 ornamental snake plants in front of the stage created an ‘ionising curtain’ between the performers and audience.

“The ionisers, designed to reduce the spread of Covid-19, induce a negative charge in the air particles around the plants. This pulls positively charged aerosols, droplets and particulate matter towards the leaves of the plants.

“The devices were introduced following a six-month collaboration between the orchestra and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star).

“SCO’s executive director Terence Ho hopes these — and a slew of other measures, such as a filterless high-volume air purifier developed by A*Star to be used in the foyer — will give people peace of mind and encourage them to attend live concerts.

” ‘We have to work towards bringing audiences back to the hall and more musicians back on stage,’ he tells The Straits Times, adding that the plant-based ionisers will remain for future concerts at Singapore Conference Hall, home to the SCO. …

“SCO’s suona and guan principal Jin Shiyi, 56, says in Mandarin: ‘Wind players are now a “high-risk” occupation, and we have had fewer opportunities to go on stage. I’m so happy we can perform on stage again.’

“Last Saturday’s wind concert, also available online for streaming, was part of the recently concluded Singapore Chinese Music Festival. It had drawn a physical audience of about 100 people, less than half the permitted capacity of 250 for that venue.

“Mr Ho says audiences are worried about the recent spike in Covid-19 cases. … For now, he is keeping his fingers crossed as the orchestra prepares for two concerts in early October to celebrate the SCO’s 25th anniversary, while taking precautions to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission. It has split performers  into separate ‘teams,’ cut down on rehearsals and roped in understudies in case performers are hit by the virus or with a 10-day quarantine order. …

“The orchestra would have launched it even without the pandemic, [Chief executive Chng Hak-Peng ] adds, as a way to maintain ties with local and overseas audiences. Before the pandemic, as many as 10 per cent of SSO’s live audience members were tourists.

“Home-grown charity the Foundation For The Arts And Social Enterprise has also launched a 10-year Music Commissioning Series to support Singapore composers and build up a canon of local contemporary music — from Chinese orchestra and cross-cultural works to jazz and musicals. …

“Founder Michael Tay says: ‘While we have had Singapore composers write works for wind bands and orchestras in the past, we don’t see a systematic plan to encourage the writing of major works (of at least 30 minutes).’ The series, he adds, ‘is meant to plug this gap.’ …

“Despite the resumption of live concerts … life has not returned to normal for orchestras. While live performances with up to 1,000 audience members, subject to conditions, are allowed, most venues can accommodate only a fraction of this after factoring in safe distancing measures. …

“[Mr Chng] adds: ‘Even though we are having concerts, we still have not, for the last year and a half, been able to have our entire orchestra perform together.’

“Then there is the impact on freelancers, who in pre-pandemic times would often perform with the orchestra and give pre-concert talks. …

“Countertenor and freelance choral director and educator Phua Ee Kia, 41, had no income for eight months last year and has not performed since 2019. He has been doing his rehearsals online during the pandemic.

” ‘Conductors are really struggling,’ he says. ‘Not all of us are tech-savvy and we don’t just have to cope with our own (issues), but also have to deal with situations when our students say, … “My screen went blank.” ‘

“Phua, who tapped a training grant to take a course in audio production software Logic Pro, hopes there will be more upskilling opportunities and financial support for freelancers. …

“Phua says: ‘A choir is not formed of just five people. I hope in the near future, we are allowed to gather and sing in a bigger group, albeit with masks on. Some of us are forgetting what it’s like to be able to perform in a bigger group.’ “

More at the Straits Times, here.

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