Singaporean conductor Wong Kah Chun is first Asian winner at prestigious global competition

Wong, who triumphed after several rounds in the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in Germany, is one of Singapore's most prolific young conductors, having led orchestras in more than 20 cities on four continents.
Wong, who triumphed after several rounds in the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in Germany, is one of Singapore's most prolific young conductors, having led orchestras in more than 20 cities on four continents.ST FILE PHOTO

29-year-old is first Asian to win top prize at prestigious global competition that picks best young conductor

Singaporean conductor Wong Kah Chun beat 13 competitors from around the world to win the first prize at the prestigious Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in Bamberg, Germany, on Thursday.

He is also the first Asian to top the competition, which began in 2004 and is held once every three years.

The 29-year-old took the top prize of €20,000 (S$31,000) after several rounds of competing in the fifth edition of the event, which seeks out the best young conductor. Winners typically go on to conduct other orchestras as part of their prize.

The competition began on May 6, and Wong was the only remaining Asian conductor from the semi-finals, going up against the likes of conductors from Russia, Ukraine and Romania.

Speaking to The Straits Times over e-mail from Bamberg, he said: "I'm incredibly grateful for the opportunities from Singapore, all of which have been instrumental in my experience in the competition. I would like to thank my family for their support and, of course, my teachers, as well as my alma mater, the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory."

  • Previous winners

  • Gustavo Dudamel

    The Venezuelan conductor won the first edition of the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in 2004, and is now one of the world's best known.

    Known as "the Dude", the Los Angeles Philharmonic music director appeared at this year's Super Bowl with Youth Orchestra Los Angeles members as the backing orchestra for Coldplay. He became director in 2009 and his contract has been extended to the 2021-2022 season. The 35-year-old is a product of Venezuela's music education programme El Sistema ("the system"), which helps disadvantaged youth. He won a Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance in 2012.

    Ainars Rubikis

    The Latvian conductor won the 2010 edition of the competition. He made his debut at the 2011 Salzburg Festival, and became the music director of the Novosibirsk State Opera House in the following year.

    The 38-year-old has performed with a variety of orchestras, including the Hong Kong Philharmonic and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. He will perform at the end of the month at Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre.

    Lahav Shani

    The 27-year-old Israeli conductor won the 2013 edition, at the age of 24. He went on to open the 2013-2014 season of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. He first performed with the orchestra under maestro Zubin Mehta in 2007, and joined as solo pianist, among other roles, for its Asia tour in 2010.

    He has since performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Vienna Symphony and Seoul Philharmonic, among others.

    Anjali Raguraman

Since the win, he has been approached by various people with offers, including a "well-known orchestra" and a top-tier artist management company.

"I have been approached for future projects and management opportunities and there might be more offers. A lot of things have been happening and it is overwhelming."

While he admitted that conducting the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra for the first time was "nerve- racking", he said that it is a "very special orchestra, truly interested in music and supporting young conductors".

"Every round got easier as we got to know each other better through the music we played," he added.

The first of his post-win commitments involved a concert with the Bamberg Symphony last night, to be broadcast by Bavarian Radio.

However, he will not have time to celebrate the win until July, as he has other commitments lined up, including conducting at the opening gala concert of the Musical Olympus Festival in St Petersburg and the Singapore Lyric Opera's Opera in the Park, as well as a fellowship with the Berlin Philharmonic.

Wong is one of Singapore's most prolific young conductors, having led orchestras in more than 20 cities on four continents.

He made his debut with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra in March last year and has since performed with the Berlin Konzerthaus Orchestra, the Saint Petersburg Symphony Orchestra and the Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra, among others.

One of his mentors, the Singapore Chinese Orchestra's music director and conductor Yeh Tsung, said he has known Wong since his student days at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, where "he showed an incredible amount of leadership quality and he demonstrated ability to think ahead of other people in many ways".

The 66-year-old added: "He is quite an individual who is on the way to becoming a future leader in music, not just in Singapore but worldwide."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 14, 2016, with the headline 'S'porean conductor hits high notes'. Print Edition | Subscribe