Singapore's Wong Kah Chun named principal guest conductor of Japan Philharmonic Orchestra

Wong Kah Chun is a rising star in the Western classical music world. PHOTO: ATSUSHI YAMAGUCHI

SINGAPORE - Home-grown conductor Wong Kah Chun will be the new principal guest conductor of the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra.

The Tokyo-based ensemble, which has played under the baton of maestros such as Seiji Ozawa and Igor Markevitch since its inception in 1956, announced the news on Wednesday (Aug 25).

Wong had conducted the orchestra for the first time in March this year.

"There was instant chemistry between maestro Wong and the orchestra in his debut appearance," said the orchestra's president and chief executive Toshikuni Hirai in a press release.

"His electrifying performances were full of joy, discovery and wisdom. We are eagerly anticipating our future collaboration together."

Wong, 35, is a rising star in the Western classical music world. In 2016, he won the prestigious international Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition and became the first Asian chief conductor of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra two years later.

In 2019, he became the first Singaporean conductor to be conferred the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.

He starts his term with the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra next month (September) for an initial two-year period.

The new role in Japan, which he takes up in addition to his existing conductorship in Germany, is a "dream job", Wong tells The Straits Times while en route to Tokyo on the Shinkansen train.

"I am still very much overwhelmed by the news and have not thought too much about specific projects together. The orchestra wishes for us to play all the symphonies of Gustav Mahler together, so a Mahler cycle is certainly on the horizon. We begin my first season with his fourth and fifth symphonies."

Wong appreciates how the orchestra has been championing Japanese composers such as Toru Takemitsu, Yasushi Akutagawa and Toshio Hosokawa.

"As an Asian myself, I look forward to my upcoming research on these musical works and to including them in my future performances," he says.

Wong starts his term with the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra next month. PHOTO: AYANE SATO

Japanese audiences, he adds, are probably the most well-behaved in the world.

"In performances, you can hear a pin drop in quiet musical passages. No coughing, no rustling of candy wrappers, no noisy flipping of programme booklets. But more than that, their understanding of music is really amazing.

"I know of some dedicated fans who buy CDs and study them as an interest group before attending the concert, and then go to an izakaya afterwards for an informal post-performance review. The audience knows their music and I always feel like my concerts are so carefully listened to."

He adds that in the years following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, the orchestra has held numerous performances and musical workshops in affected areas in north-east Japan - something that resonates with his own desire to uplift the human spirit through music.

Wong is the co-founder of Project Infinitude, which works with non-profit agency Child At Street 11 in Singapore to give children an inclusive space to explore classical music.

He adds that he was impressed by the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra during his first rehearsal with them.

"What struck me most was that the musicians were already performing at an incredibly high level - as if they were ready for a concert that same evening.

"And yet, I get another three days to really go into the music with them. This gives us an opportunity to explore well-known masterpieces with astonishing depth," he says.

"The pace of life can be so quick in the city, but enter the concert hall and time suddenly stops, as if we were at a teahouse or strolling along the Nakasendo (mountain trail)."

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