Wong Kah Chun

Conductor tunes in to lift children's spirits

Wong Kah Chun won first prize at the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition and has led several symphony orchestras around the world.
Conductor Wong Kah Chun's Project Infinitude is aimed at helping children.
Conductor Wong Kah Chun's Project Infinitude is aimed at helping children.PHOTO: NATIONAL ARTS COUNCIL

Conductor Wong Kah Chun, 31, goes the extra mile to prepare for concerts, including observing orchestras incognito.

Wong, who won the first prize at the prestigious Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in Germany last year, said: "I like to do research on the orchestras I am working with. If I have time, I fly to the city and listen to their concerts first."

Last month, he flew to France, where he will conduct the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse on Nov 17 and 18. "No one knew I was there, I was a normal ticket-paying audience member."

Wong, who gained international attention after his win, is now on a tour of 24 concerts in 20 cities.

From next September, he will be chief conductor of Germany's Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra, the first Asian in this role.

Wong, who won the Young Artist Award last month, is a self-professed "kiasu" Singaporean. He wakes up at 5am to prepare for a rehearsal that might begin at 10am, finds out about the orchestra's work culture, and uses language app Babbel to better connect with musicians in their native language.

He also solicits feedback from fellow musicians over beer. "People are usually very nice. But then, after a few more beers, I tell them to... just tell me how I can improve."

His fiancee, a Japanese musician, is his biggest critic.

He was speaking to The Straits Times over the phone the morning after an "exhilarating" debut with the Konzerthausorchester Berlin. It is his "one free day", and he has a cold. "My body has been running on adrenaline for the past few days." It can be daunting to conduct in a cultural capital such as Berlin.

Conducting the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, which he did in August, is hard for another reason. "A lot of them are my teachers," said Wong, who went to the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music.

Last year, he co-founded Project Infinitude, a ground-up arts project for children, and had a successful pilot programme with the Enabling Village. He is now working with childcare agency Child at Street 11."Cultural philanthropy is wonderful. Especially in a society that is quite capitalistic, it would be nice to set an example," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 06, 2017, with the headline 'Conductor tunes in to lift children's spirits'. Subscribe