Composer, conductor, educator and pianist Dr Robert Casteels believes that these roles are fundamentally interrelated in the kaleidoscope of activities that is music making.
Casteels has conducted more than 50 professional orchestras in 20 countries in a repertoire of 600 works ranging from the early classics to contemporary music, from symphonic to vocal and dance repertoire. He has conducted first performances of symphonic works, ballets and operas in festivals such as: Spoleto Festival (Charleston, US/ Spoleto, Italy/ Melbourne, Australia), Ars Musica (Brussels), Brisbane Biennale (Australia), Focus (New York), Wien Modern (Vienna), Donaueschingen and Berlin Biennale (Germany).
Casteels studied composition with Fernand Quinet in Brussels and Peter Maxwell Davies in Dartington, England. He graduated from the French and Flemish Royal Conservatories in Brussels in piano and orchestral conducting, as well as from the Eötvös Institute, the Guildhall School of Music of London and the Juilliard School in New York where his teachers included Leonard Bernstein and Zubin Mehta. Following his graduation from Juilliard, he was appointed staff conductor at the Brussels Royal Opera House and Head of Conducting Studies at the Brussels (Flemish) Royal Music Conservatory. At the Conservatory he also set up an opera studio that was a great success at helping young singers bridge the gap between tertiary-level training and professional life.
Casteels is the recipient of several awards, including the Bruno Walter Scholarship for Orchestral Conducting awarded by the Juilliard School for two consecutive years, as well as the First Prize for contemporary music at the International Conducting Competition of the Hungarian Radio and Television. In 2001, Casteels became the youngest recipient and the second musician ever to receive the prestigious Christoffel Plantin Prize, the Flemish Government’s highest award for cultural achievements, in recognition of his contribution to cross-cultural research.
Whilst continuing his conducting engagements on the international stage, Casteels shifted the focus of his activities from Europe to Australasia, choosing Singapore as his home base in 1995, and taking up permanent residency in 1996. Since then, he has contributed tirelessly to Singapore’s music scene, as Dean of the Faculty of Performing Arts at the LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts, as Music Director of the Singapore National Youth Orchestra (SNYO), as a member of various government-appointed arts committees, and as Artistic Director and Resident Conductor of the Philharmonic Winds.
Casteels’ achievements include producing SNYO’s first recordings of professional quality as well as its debut at the Esplanade Concert Hall. He has premiered iconic masterpieces in Singapore, such as works by Boulez, Ligeti, Takemitsu, Stockhausen and Varèse. He champions the works of his fellow Singaporean composers by organising and conducting successful concerts entirely devoted to emerging Singaporean composers and by regularly including Singaporean works in concerts of standard repertoire. He has collaborated with more than 50 Singaporean visual and performing artists, and was co-founder of the LASALLE Gamelan Ensemble, which performed in New Zealand, Australia and Indonesia. In 2005, he led the Philharmonic Winds to win the Gold with Distinction Award at the World Music Contest of Kerkrade (The Netherlands) with the highest mark ever scored by a Singaporean group. In 2007, Casteels became a proud Singaporean citizen, focusing his activities on composing and teaching.
Casteels has written a growing corpus of musical works which cross cultures, genres and disciplines. These range from miniature to large-scale works in the European tradition, as well as multidisciplinary works which combine European, Chinese, Indian instruments and gamelan with computer-generated sound and images. In 2004 the University of Melbourne awarded Casteels a Doctorate for his thesis on gamelan and contemporary music.
Casteels’ compositions have been premiered in Australia, Belgium, China, England, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand and The Netherlands. In Singapore Robert has received commissions by institutions such as the Asian Civilisations Museum, Arts Fest ‘99 and ‘06, City Garden Fund, Contemporary Asian Arts Centre, Institute of Policy Studies, LASALLE-SIA, Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Education, National University of Singapore in 2000 and 2005, the Old Parliament Arts House and the World Association for Symphonic Bands and Ensembles (WASBE). Seven audio and video compact disks entirely devoted to Casteels’ works have been published thus far.
In April 2004, Casteels was appointed the first Associate-in-Residence (Special Music Projects) by the Centre for the Arts, National University of Singapore. In recent years, Casteels initiated, raised funds and executed a series of special projects that combined music and other disciplines in a meaningful collaboration between international and Singaporean artists: the festival Magic of Music in Movies in 2004, Music and Architecture in 2006, and in 2007 Food, Plants and Music at the Old Parliament Arts House and Petronas Galeri in Kuala Lumpur. As Artistic Director of the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF)’s first music camp I’mPulse held in the Philippines in 2005, he conceived and executed an initiative which brought together young graduates from the universities and conservatories of 35 ASEF countries to perform and record each others’ works.
Casteels enjoys sharing his ideas about music and has been invited to present academic papers at international conferences such as the 9th International Conference of Asia Pacific Confederation for Arts Education and the European League of Institute of the Arts. He believes in making music accessible to audiences and has given pre-concert talks for the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) and the Singapore Lyric Opera, as well as interactive commentaries in concerts that he conducted with the SSO and Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra. He has also given several public lectures in conservatories, museums and arts institutions such as at the Alliance Française de Singapour.
A passionate educationist, Casteels is noted for his pedagogical work. His private studio includes students at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, National University of Singapore, as well as trainee music teachers enrolled at Singapore’s National Institute of Education.
Casteels’ hobbies include reading, philately, traveling, rambling and cycling.