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Kahchun Wong, Chief Conductor of Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra
AT A RECENT photo shoot with famous photographer Russel Wong, conductor Kahchun Wong jokingly asked the photographer if he could make him look like Chris Hemsworth, the actor who plays Thor, the mythological God of Thunder, in the Hollywood blockbuster films.
Russel Wong has spent 30 years capturing A-listers such as Hemsworth, Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, Aishwarya Rai, Michelle Yeo and Ken Watanabe. And Kahchun Wong was perhaps anxious about appearing less than starry next to the pantheon of gods and goddesses the photographer has lensed.
But as anyone in the Western classical music world knows, Wong’s star has been steadily rising. At 34, he is one of the most sought-after young conductors in the world, with a steady stream of invitations from major orchestras to guest-conduct.
Born in Singapore to a Mandarin-speaking family, Wong had almost no exposure to Bach or Beethoven in his early years. But he took an instant liking to music when he was asked to join the school brass band in Primary One.
This grew into a consuming adolescent passion, which eventually led him to reject the idea of studying physics in Cambridge despite stellar grades, and choose a music scholarship at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music instead. In 2016, Wong beat hundreds of international conductors to win the prestigious international Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition. And since 2018, he has led the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra as its chief conductor.
On July 15, Wong will premiere an 8-minute segment of Beethoven’s Ode To Joy in the virtual charity concert ChildAid 2020. Organised by The Business Times and The Straits Times, ChildAid has been raising funds for underprivileged children for 16 years. The Beethoven segment sees Wong surrounded by digital images of over 1,000 internationational musicians whom he leads in making grand, glorious music.
Standing in the middle of what feels like an ancient pantheon, Wong looks very much like a mythological god himself. As for the picture Russel Wong took, you can judge it here for yourself. Starry, no?
You’ve got 1,000 musicians from around the world to participate virtually in making Ode To Joy for ChildAid 2020. That’s pretty amazing.
Yes, we’ve got members of the acclaimed Dresden Boys Choir, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Chorus and the Philharmonic Chorus of Tokyo singing alongside hundreds of community participants from around the world. We also have musicians from many esteemed orchestras in Chicago, Nuremberg, Hong Kong, Japan, Munich, London, New York and China playing the music. Every musician we approached said yes. It's going to be a very special gathering that makes very strong sense in this period where there’s Covid-19 and social distancing.
Besides online concerts, how can music and musicians carry on in these social distancing times?
It seems like a simple question, but it’s really tough to answer. The fact is, we are surrounded by music and the arts all the time. Just looking outside my window, I can see many examples of culture and creativity. And these days, there is such an influx of online digital resources that I’m actually quite overwhelmed by them. Every weekend now, you’ve got various concerts streaming online and you’ve got to choose what you want to see...
But I must say that these few months have made me more creative and productive than if I hadn’t gone through it. For some time, I’ve been flying from one city to another, conducting one orchestra after another – it’s become a routine. Having not travelled for almost four months has taken me out of my comfort zone, and made me think through everything. For instance, I was supposed to conduct the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra at the Suntory Hall in Tokyo, and our performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 was supposed to be recorded by Nippon Columbia – this would have been my very first professionally-cut album. But Covid-19 has pushed it back to next year, so that gives me one more year to prepare and make myself better.
Singapore’s domestic market is small, and that has hampered the growth and survival of many artists here. You’ve achieved international success, something that almost any artist anywhere in the world dreams about. Could you talk about how you’ve achieved that?
You know, I have to admit that I was so naïve about the arts to the point that I didn’t think about how I might expand my career. In primary school, I was in the brass band for six years. And I just liked my band instructor and thought that’s what I would do when I grow up – I’d teach a primary school band and be very happy. And then I went to secondary school and again I admired my band instructor and thought she's such an expert – maybe I could work in the Ministry of Education and teach music at O or A Levels… And so it was that the journey to my becoming a conductor involved the whole community coming in to help. It's not just me coming into my own, I’ve had amazing teachers and parents, public and private patrons, all opening one door after another for me. It's difficult to say how I’ve reached where I am, but I’m aware that I’m only at the start of my journey, and I have a long way to go.
You’re one of a few Asian conductors helming orchestras in Central Europe. What do you think you bring to the table that has made you stand out?
That is another difficult question to answer, even though I agree that every conductor, every musician, must bring something unique to the table. In my case, when I go to an orchestra, there are certain things I like to see; for instance, I like to have the orchestra work as efficiently as we can together, and I try to get this done politely, because that's how I've been brought up… I feel that music is an organic part of my life. And with Western orchestral music, you have a 100 musicians all playing different things, and everyone is great. But there are these moments where everyone contributes in a way that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. And for me, this is the miracle of Western classical music, this kind of emotional catharsis.
You once said that you treat every concert as if it’s the last you’ll ever give. That must be exhausting...
I would say it's more of performing music as if it's the last opportunity to make it right, because every moment of making music, it's a life – and it's almost impossible to recreate that moment. I've had a couple of recordings of myself, where I sort of liked a gesture or a musical idea that I came up with at that moment. And I’ve tried to copy myself the next time I conduct the piece. But it’s always unsuccessful, it just wouldn’t work out. And so that brings me to this point where I want to learn as much as I can, and then when I'm on stage, I am my own artist creating a moment that can only exist then and never be replicated… That is the tough part of making music, but also the easiest, because all I have to do is to completely erase every non-musical thing out of my brain, and for the two hours of that concert, I focus my whole being on the music.
To watch ChildAid 2020, visit www.businesstimes.com.sg or www.straitstimes.com on July 15 at 8pm. The concert will also be streamed on The Business Times and The Straits Times' Facebook and YouTube pages. The Ode To Joy segment is supported by the Federal Foreign Office of Germany, the National Arts Council Singapore and Singapore Press Holdings, among others.