Self-professed “international conductor with a local heart”, Mr Wong Kah Chun began his musical journey playing the cornet in his primary school band in Jurong West.
That was the start of greater things to come for the Singaporean conductor, who achieved international fame after winning the Mahler Competition in May last year. That led to his appointment as a conducting fellow with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Today, he is one of the youngest music directors in the world, and the youngest Asian conductor in Europe. And he will be taking on the role of chief conductor of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra in Nuremberg in Germany next year.
Passion for music
Mr Wong sees himself as — first and foremost — a music lover. And his vision of a conductor is one of a guardian of unity, instead of someone often thought to control the musicians on stage.
“A conductor has to have the power to inspire a collective vision of the music being performed, a piece that could have been composed five, or even 200 years ago,” he explains.
Leadership in this form is difficult to achieve, he says, especially as an Asian working primarily in Europe with musicians who are playing the music of their own country.
Says Mr Wong: “If I were playing Beethoven in Germany, it’s almost comparable to a Frenchman coming to Singapore and conducting the Chinese Orchestra.
“There are cultural barriers, but I would say the only way to overcome them is to work as hard as I can, learn their music and culture, and keep at the back of my mind that I’m working with them not as a boss, but as a kind of collaborative team.”
Being the youngest Asian conductor in a European country known for its long history of music is intimidating yet inspiring to Mr Wong.
But he is so enthusiastic and passionate about what he does that it does not seem like work to him at all.
“I get to stand on a different stage in a different part of the world every week, doing what I love and being a cultural ambassador for Singapore,” he says.
Bringing music to all
Despite his success abroad, Mr Wong still has Singapore in his heart, especially the younger generation.
On top of helping to bolster the local classical music scene through initiatives such as the Composition Academy for Southeast Asian Composers, he aims to bring music to children of all backgrounds in Singapore.
In the long run, he hopes his efforts will “encourage more listening within society, which may lead to mutual understanding, empathy, compassion and love”.
“I want to contribute to this land that introduced me to music at the very beginning,” he says.
To Mr Wong, music transcends cultural and language barriers, and he intends to reach out to children from various non-musical backgrounds through music.
He also feels that music and arts can have a strong and positive impact on children from single-parent or low-income households, and those with special needs.
“It is a soft way of embracing anyone without trying to quantify it with exams and exam scores,” he explains. “It’s not a quantifiable subject and therefore less exam-driven.”
His belief in the power of music education led him to set up Project Infinitude, a ground-up arts initiative that embraces children of diverse backgrounds.
A pilot programme that ran from November 2016 to March 2017 at the Enabling Village was aimed at creating a safe and positive space for people with different abilities to collaborate in musical projects.
The pilot project was supported by the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music and the social collective Superhero Me.
Together with his co-founder Marina Mahler, the granddaughter of composer Gustav Mahler, they plan to expand Project Infinitude in a sustainable and mindful way in the future.
Says Mr Wong: “I believe that any child can be embraced by music, or the arts in general.
“My role is to find opportunities to open doors or windows for any child to have a glimpse into the world of music and make their own decision as to whether they wish to step through the doors.”
Although he is no stranger to the local pushback against the idea of pursuing the arts as a career, it is his desire to create a space for music in the lives of Singaporean youth, in the hope that it will be meaningful and be a source of passion, confidence and love to them.