Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition winner Wong Kah Chun is booked until 2020

Aside from conducting orchestras around the world, Wong Kah Chun is setting up a global music education programme for children from less privileged backgrounds.
Aside from conducting orchestras around the world, Wong Kah Chun is setting up a global music education programme for children from less privileged backgrounds. ST FILE PHOTO

Wong Kah Chun, who won the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition, fields offers pouring in from around the world

Since winning the prestigious Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in May, life has been sweet for Singaporean conductor Wong Kah Chun.

The talented 30-year-old has received plenty of offers from orchestras around the world - enough to fill his schedule until 2020.

These include making his North American debut with a major American orchestra at the end of the year. Details are still being finalised.

Engagements in Europe include debut concerts with Germany's Bamberg Symphony, Denmark's Aarhus Symphony Orchestra and The Croatian National Theatre Ivan pl. Zajc, among others.

In Asia, he will conduct orchestras in Hong Kong, and Tokyo and Kanagawa Prefecture in Japan, for the first time.

He is due to sign on to a major New York management agency soon.

Speaking to The Straits Times from Japan, where he is periodically based, he says that he is more than grateful for the doors that have opened since his win in Bamberg, Germany.

"The competition opened up possibilities for me. I'm one of the most championed young Asian conductors right now," he says. "There's a momentum carrying me forward."

Fresh off his win, he made his China debut in June, stepping in to cover for renowned Spanish conductor Jesus Lopez-Cobos at short notice.

He conducted the China Philharmonic Orchestra in Beijing, the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra. These led to further offers to work with other Chinese orchestras at a future date.

While he has no shortage of international offers, he says he is still a Singapore boy at heart.

For an interview with The Straits Times in May at the Esplanade, he asked to go to Toast Box, where he had peanut butter toast and tea, which he had missed during his stay in Europe and Japan.

Wong was based in Berlin, Germany from 2012 to 2014 for his studies, and continued travelling after that.

He will be back in Singapore this week to prepare for a concert on Aug 20 with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO), as part of its 20th anniversary concert season.

The orchestra is close to his heart as it gave him his first professional engagement in 2011.

For the upcoming concert, the SCO engaged him before his win at Bamberg, "which shows how much it supports me", says Wong.

The bachelor travels frequently for rehearsals and to fulfil his engagements - one day he might be in the United States, the next in Hong Kong and the week after in Germany.

The win at Bamberg, which saw him beating 13 other young competitors from around the world, secured him the top prize of €20,000 (S$30,096).

He has donated a sum of money to help with the fallout of the two Kumamoto earthquakes in April, which took place when he was in Japan.

He muses also that he might build a library of scores - which can be expensive to procure - with the prize money.

He recalls with a laugh how his friends joked that "finally you have money".

As a freelance conductor, he describes situations in the past where his parents would give him "friendly reminders" when his bank account dwindled to the low hundreds, a sign that he would have to tighten the purse strings until the next pay cheque.

His busy schedule not only translates into more stable income, but also allows him to "work on a longer term and put things into perspective".

This includes working on something for social change, outside of conducting.

Since the win, he has been busy working with Marina Mahler, the granddaughter of Gustav Mahler, to set up a global music education initiative for children from less privileged backgrounds.

He hopes to start the initiative in Singapore first, hopefully by early next year.

This builds on his work in Singapore with the Asian Contemporary Ensemble. He is its artistic director. It organised classical music concerts for the less privileged as part of a two-week-long festival, called musi/care, in May and June this year.

Wong is passionate about using music in this larger way, outside of conducting. He says that with the competition win, people might mistakenly think that he will lose relevance to society in general.

"Now that I have this responsibility, I cannot waste it."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 04, 2016, with the headline 'Singapore conductor going places after win'. Print Edition | Subscribe