Conductor Wong Kah Chun gets dream debut with Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Awardwinning Singaporean conductor Wong Kah Chun has had concerts in at least 20 cities around the world. -- PHOTO: SSO
Awardwinning Singaporean conductor Wong Kah Chun has had concerts in at least 20 cities around the world. -- PHOTO: SSO

Singaporean Wong Kah Chun, who has conducted abroad, finally has chance to lead Singapore orchestra

As a teenager, Wong Kah Chun attended open rehearsals of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, hoping to one day stand on the stage with them, holding the baton.

The award-winning young Singa- porean conductor finally realises his dream on March 6 at the Esplanade Concert Hall.

He will conduct the SSO in performances of two symphonic poems by Liszt (Orpheus, Les Preludes) and Wagner's Tannhauser Overture.

On the same night, American violinist Sarah Chang will perform Dvorak's Violin Concerto In A Minor with the orchestra, under the baton of SSO music director Shui Lan.

"I'm very excited, but I'm also nervous," says Wong, 29, on the telephone from Luxembourg, where he trained this month with the Philharmonie Luxembourg.

"Singapore is where I grew up and, since I was 18, I've gone to open rehearsals, sitting by the side watching famous conductors work with the SSO.

"I've been waiting for a long time for an invitation, but I also wanted to perform in my home and with the SSO only when I was ready."

Wong's star has been rising in the last four years, with concerts in at least 20 cities around the world to his credit. He was a guest conductor with the Oltenia State Philharmonic Orchestra in Romania this month and the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra and St Petersburg Philharmonic in Russia last year, while he completed his master's in orchestra conducting and opera conducting from the Hanns-Eisler Musikhochschule in Berlin.

Two years ago, he won first place at the 4th International Conducting Competition Jeunesses Musicales Bucharest. In 2011, after graduating from the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Singapore with a bachelor's degree in music composition, he won second place at the International Competition of Young Conductors Lovro von Matacic in Croatia.

He has twice appeared at the well-known Lucerne Easter Festival in Switzerland, in 2012 and last year.

His upcoming engagements include playing with the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra next month as well as the Asian Contemporary Ensemble, made up of young Asean musicians, in Singapore. He will lead the Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra in Argentina in May and the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble in June.

His appearance with the SSO follows the orchestra's tradition of recognising rising conductors - Darrell Ang and Joshua Tan Kang Ming in the past - and comes two years after a stint as assistant conductor of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra.

"I've been very blessed with opportunities," says Wong, adding that he could not have achieved his current standing without the mentorship of the Chinese orchestra's maestro Yeh Tsung, as well as scholarships and training grants from bodies such as the National Arts Council, National Youth Council, the Public Service Commission and Yong Siew Toh Conservatory.

He also received the F J Benjamin-SSO Bursary in 2012 which allowed him to attend a conducting seminar with Kurt Masur and led to public concerts with the German maestro.

The financial help has been crucial. His family has lived in the same five- room HDB flat since the 1980s.

His father Victor Wong, 65, who retired from the Singapore Armed Forces, admits that he was hoping the oldest of his three sons would "pursue other things" and make "big money".

His mother is a childcare teacher.

Says the older Mr Wong, who will be in the audience next Friday: "But he's interested in music and very passionate about it. No parent should stop his child's talent."

Kah Chun is looking forward to conducting Wagner and Liszt, both famous German composers he heard much of during his time in Berlin. He is also hoping to make a good showing before SSO players such as trumpet player Ikebe Jun, who taught him over a decade ago, when Wong played with the Singapore National Youth Orchestra.

"It's one thing to conduct beautifully in front of an audience, but it's another thing to have four rehearsals with an orchestra that knows the music and has played it 50 times. What does one do in those four rehearsals?" he says. "If an invitation from the SSO had come three years ago, if I was too inexperienced to manage the expectations of the musicians, I'd be closing doors.

"If you waste five seconds of 90 musicians' time, that's 450 seconds wasted. That's something I've become more aware of in the past few years."

akshitan@sph.com.sg