Daunting for conductor Wong Kah Chun to lead at home

Wong Kah Chun is a busy man, with 24 concerts in 20 cities around the world lined up in the year ahead.
Wong Kah Chun is a busy man, with 24 concerts in 20 cities around the world lined up in the year ahead.PHOTO: ST FILE

Wong Kah Chun, back from abroad, finds it intimidating and inspiring to conduct the Singapore Symphony Orchestra

After a whirlwind tour of the world's orchestras, award-winning Singaporean conductor Wong Kah Chun returns home to conduct the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) today.

Last year, the 31-year-oldmade his debut with orchestras around the world, from the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the United States to the Kansai Philharmonic Orchestra in Japan, and even stepped up at the last minute to lead German orchestra Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz in May.

This evening's concert, he says, will be even more daunting than any of these.

"So many of those in the orchestra are my teachers, from when I was with the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music," he says. "It is both intimidating and inspiring to share my vision with them."

Wong turned heads internationally in May last year, when he became the first Asian to win the prestigious international Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition for young conductors in Bamberg, Germany.

 

This will be his first time leading the SSO since his win. Because the main seating area has sold out, the SSO has opened additional seating in the choir gallery.

The first half of tonight's concert will feature Israeli pianist Shai Wosner playing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5, dubbed "the Emperor" for its regal power.

  • BOOK IT / EMPEROR AND PATHETIQUE

  • WHERE: Esplanade Concert Hall, 1 Esplanade Drive

    WHEN: Today, 7.30pm

    ADMISSION: $28 and $48 (excluding booking fees) from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

    INFO: sso.org.sg

The second half will comprise Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 or "the Pathetique", which is known for its profound emotional quality and is a personal favourite of Wong's.

"The Emperor is grand, powerful, and majestic," he says, "which I wanted to contrast with the Pathetique, which is dark, powerfully emotional and dies away in pain and regret."

He compares the pairing of the two to the legend of King Arthur, who goes from the vigour of his youthful deeds, such as pulling the sword Excalibur from a stone, to betrayal and tragedy in the final days of his reign.

"Often the best stories are the ones in which the hero has to die," he says.

Since the Mahler win, Wong's schedule has been a punishing one. His homecoming has been packed with back-to-back rehearsals and meetings, and this interview takes place during one of his rare breaks, as he devours beef hor fun in a hotel cafe.

"I really wish I could eat this at a proper zi char place," he says between mouthfuls, "but there's no time."

Wong, who is engaged to a Japanese musician, has not even had the chance to see his parents, whom he will reunite with at tonight's concert, along with many of his childhood friends.

He has 24 concerts in 20 cities around the world lined up in the year ahead, after which he will take up the baton of chief conductor of Germany's Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra in September next year.

"It seems a bit too overwhelming at times," he says.

"But this is the real beginning to my professional conducting career. I want to make every concert count."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 25, 2017, with the headline 'Daunting for conductor to lead at home'. Print Edition | Subscribe