THE LIFE! INTERVIEW

At 29, Wong Kah Chun has conducted orchestras on four continents

Musician/conductor Wong Kah Chun conducting the Moscow Philharmon.
Musician/conductor Wong Kah Chun conducting the Moscow Philharmon.PHOTO: WONG KAH CHUN
Musician/conductor Wong Kah Chun with his mentor, Kurt Masur at the German maestro's home in Leipzig in 2013.
Musician/conductor Wong Kah Chun with his mentor, Kurt Masur at the German maestro's home in Leipzig in 2013. PHOTO: WONG KAH CHUN
Musician/conductor Wong Kah Chun with violinist Gil Shaham at the Aspen Music Festival in 2011.
Musician/conductor Wong Kah Chun with violinist Gil Shaham at the Aspen Music Festival in 2011.PHOTO: WONG KAH CHUN
Musician/conductor Wong Kah Chun at a singing competition when he was five.
Musician/conductor Wong Kah Chun at a singing competition when he was five.PHOTO: WONG KAH CHUN
Musician/conductor Wong Kah Chun.
Musician/conductor Wong Kah Chun.PHOTO: ST FILE

Wong Kah Chun has not only conducted the SSO and SCO, but he also travels overseas for conducting stints

Singaporean conductor Wong Kah Chun is a year shy of 30 but has already led orchestras in more than 20 cities in four continents. This means he can say "Violins, play bar 10" in 10 languages, including Russian, Italian, French, German, Chinese and Spanish.

"It helps that violin is bai-o-rin in Japanese," laughs the conductor. "Numbers are harder."

So he had a friend give him a crash course in Vietnamese, for example, before his stint with the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra earlier this month.

Life! met Wong twice in Singapore - once before his concerts in Hanoi and again after, when he returned last week to perform with his Asian Contemporary Music Ensemble in a concert that was part of the National University of Singapore Arts Festival. The concert was cancelled out of respect for the death of Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

 
 

Speaking to Wong after he has braved the long queue to Parliament House to pay his respects, the conductor says he is glad for some down time.

From next month to June, he moves through four continents, performing with the Japan-America Institute for New Music in Los Angeles next month, the Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra in Santa Fe, Argentina, in May and the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra of Denmark and Hong Kong New Music Ensemble in June.

Earlier this month, he conducted the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) for the first time at the Esplanade Concert Hall.

The March 6 performance made him one of the few home-grown batons to have led both the SSO and the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO), where he was a conducting assistant from 2011 to 2013, under the mentorship of the ensemble's maestro, Yeh Tsung.

The achievements on Wong's CV also include a first prize win at the International Conducting Competition Jeunesses Musicales Bucharest in 2013 and a second place at Croatia's International Lovro von Matacic Competition for Conductors in 2011.

Yet the conductor, who turns 29 in June, is more likely to focus in conversation on the things he has yet to learn.

Take the SSO gig, for instance. The Straits Times reviewer Albert Lin wrote about Wong's "deep understanding of the score, which was impressively evident in his intelligent crafting of every nook and crevice".

However, the young conductor talks only with gratitude of the "patience" of the orchestra during rehearsals. "I was just blown away. I must say how encouraging they were. I would stop, I would be thinking of something we could do to the sound and, immediately, the leader of the orchestra would turn and say, 'Let's try this.' We ended the rehearsal 11/2 hours before it should have ended because everyone was so well-prepared."

Ending rehearsals early is a little trick he has learnt from watching some of the world's best conductors at work, as a teen applying to the SSO for special permission to attend even closed rehearsals at Victoria Concert Hall.

So he has learnt from German maestro Kurt Masur, who picked him for a select set of masterclasses in 2012 and seen the effect it had three years ago when Russia's Gennady Rozhdestvensky ended his rehearsal with the SSO so early that the relaxed orchestra gave a masterful, much-cheered performance under the maestro's baton.

He also learnt the importance of staying within the allotted rehearsal time while still a student - he studied at River Valley High School and Raffles Junior College and did his bachelor's in music at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory before heading to Berlin's Hanns-Eisler Musikhochschule, where he completed his master's last year.

Once while rehearsing with a student ensemble in Singapore, the teacher in charge came over and closed Wong's score the very minute the rehearsal was supposed to end. "I was shocked then but it was a very good lesson," he says. "If I'd gone overtime with an American orchestra, I'd have been shot."

Music has been his passion since he was a child, according to his father Victor Wong, 65, who has retired from the Singapore Armed Forces. His mother, childcare teacher Yeo Huay Lan, 60, played the piano when she was pregnant with him and, as a baby, Wong was fond of singing along and touching the keys. The oldest of three boys, he always knew he wanted to be a musician, writing of this ambition in an essay when he was in Jurong Primary School.

"Everyone laughed at me," he recalls.

Only his parents did not. "Since he's young, everything is music, music, music to him," recalls the senior Mr Wong, who tightened his belt and bought his son a $3,000 trumpet so he could play in the River Valley High School band. "My wife and I always supported him, even though we wanted him to do other things."

The family has lived in the same five- room HDB flat in the western part of Singapore since the 1980s and financial matters have always been at the forefront of the young conductor's mind.

During his teens, he considered becoming a music teacher for the financial security it would have provided, but felt that would not let him pursue his interest in music to the fullest.

Luckily, a full scholarship to the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory paid for his bachelor's degree, while scholarships from the National Arts Council, Public Service Commission and Lee Kuan Yew Scholarship for Arts and Culture took care of his further education.

Apart from conducting, he also writes music and would coax his school bandmates into performing his work in exchange for a basketball game. While in the music elective programme at Raffles Junior College, he decided to turn the school song into a symphony, recalls his former teacher Mary Seah, who helped him pull together 100 student musicians for the performance.

"It must have been his first symphony written. After months of hard work, multiple revisions taking in feedback from the musicians, it was performed at the Esplanade Concert Hall with Kah Chun conducting it in 2004," says Ms Seah, 41.

Eight years later, that same work was rearranged, published by Tierolff Muziekcentrale (Netherlands) and recorded by the Hegeland Wind Orchestra.

During national service, Wong was in the Singapore Armed Forces Band and his passion to be note-perfect made him stand out from the other servicemen, recalls his bandmate Gideon Ma, 31, now an engineer.

"He booked rehearsal rooms on his own, spent time composing his music or banging on his piano. He was much more serious about music. The rest of us were all playing for fun but he was more aware of the details, how a piece should be played, how long to hold a certain note.

"He's a very good trumpet player. He could be a professional trumpet player if he wanted to."

Playing the trumpet in an army band means long hours of making music non-stop, compared with playing in an orchestra, where a trumpeter is less frequently called on. During his national service years, Wong sustained nerve damage on his lip and had to give up playing the instrument for a while and turned his energies to composition and conducting instead.

He studied composition at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, which does not have a conducting programme. His passion for playing the biggest instrument of all, the orchestra, as a conductor, led him to form, in his first year, the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Sinfonia and, in 2011, the still-functioning Asian Contemporary Ensemble, which spotlights Asian composers and musicians.

The conservatory's head of composition, associate professor Ho Chee Kong, 53, was impressed by his drive. "He was always looking for opportunities to go to seminars and masterclasses. He has this boundless energy and talent of looking into music and getting the spirit of the music as written by the composers."

Prof Ho is on the SCO board and introduced Wong to the Chinese orchestra's music director Yeh. Yeh, 64, was struck by Wong's potential and offered him a junior post with the Chinese orchestra.

He has continued to follow his protege's progress and says: "The experience in Europe from conservatory to competition to guest conducting has certainly brought him more maturity and sophistication. He's communicative on the podium and freely expresses his passion for music to the orchestra whenever he conducts.

"He's also very hardworking. He will persist to drill over a question to its roots. I am very proud of his accomplishments. I am confident that he will have great achievements."

Persistence is paying off now in Wong's career, agrees conductor Wang Ya Hui, 47, who was music director and adviser at the National University of Singapore from 2006 to 2012 and one of Wong's mentors.

She was impressed then by his relentless pursuit of conducting opportunities in the small pool that is Singapore's classical music scene.

She watched him in front of the SSO earlier this month and says the highlight for her was seeing the experienced musicians applaud him after the performance. "That was the moment I was looking for, was he successful in earning their applause? I am very proud of what he has achieved."

Wong himself feels he has a way to go before he can say he has truly arrived on the world stage. He told Life! in the first interview at The Arts House that while his schedule is full until the end of June, there is a four-month gap until his next confirmed engagement in Romania in November.

Of course, when we meet again three weeks later, he had received offers from a couple more European orchestras, but the haphazard nature of freelance work makes him thrifty. For example, he might ask orchestras not to put him up at five-star hotels, but to add the money saved to his fee. Instead, he will bunk in at a youth hostel and eat cheaply.

There is always the option of taking a permanent post as a conductor or assistant conductor with an orchestra but, for now, he is keen to travel as much as he can and make as many connections with the world of music as possible.

His mentor Wang agrees, saying: "In the early years, 50 per cent is conducting, the rest is building relationships and networking."

Wong admits that he feels the pressure to do as well as his peers. "My peers are bankers, successful civil servants, lawyers and I'm still, in a way, jobless, moving from place to place like a nomad. I've been self-sufficient since I was 18, but I don't really support my family."

He is thinking of the future nowadays, thanks to his girlfriend, a musician from overseas.

"I'd like to have my own orchestra one day. I'd like to be able to work in a province in Europe where I can spend five, 10 years learning music and really bringing up my level to become a mature conductor.

"With this sort of dream, I don't need to think about whether I have an HDB flat or CPF," he adds, with a laugh. "I have been very, very fortunate."

akshitan@sph.com.sg