Roaming the world with his baton

Roaming the world with his baton
Musician/conductor Wong Kah Chun has gone from playing instruments to writing music to conducting orchestras.

Singaporean conductor Wong Kah Chun is a year shy of 30 but has already led orchestras in more than 20 cities in four continents. This means he can say "Violins, play bar 10" in 10 languages, including Russian, Italian, French, German, Chinese and Spanish.

"It helps that violin is bai-o-rin in Japanese," laughs the conductor. "Numbers are harder."

So he had a friend give him a crash course in Vietnamese, for example, before his stint with the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra earlier this month.

Life! met Wong twice in Singapore - once before his concerts in Hanoi and again after, when he returned last week to perform with his Asian Contemporary Music Ensemble in a concert that was part of the National University of Singapore Arts Festival. The concert was cancelled out of respect for the death of Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

Speaking to Wong after he has braved the long queue to Parliament House to pay his respects, the conductor says he is glad for some down time. From next month to June, he moves through four continents, performing with the Japan-America Institute for New Music in Los Angeles next month, the Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra in Santa Fe, Argentina, in May and the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra of Denmark and Hong Kong New Music Ensemble in June.

Earlier this month, he conducted the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) for the first time at the Esplanade Concert Hall.

The March 6 performance made him one of the few home-grown batons to have led both the SSO and the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO), where he was a conducting assistant from 2011 to 2013, under the mentorship of the ensemble's maestro, Yeh Tsung.

The achievements on Wong's CV also include a first prize win at the International Conducting Competition Jeunesses Musicales Bucharest in 2013 and a second place at Croatia's International Lovro von Matacic Competition for Conductors in 2011.

Yet the conductor, who turns 29 in June, is more likely to focus in conversation on the things he has yet to learn.

Take the SSO gig, for instance. The Straits Times reviewer Albert Lin wrote about Wong's "deep understanding of the score, which was impressively evident in his intelligent crafting of every nook and crevice".

However, the young conductor talks only with gratitude of the "patience" of the orchestra during rehearsals. "I was just blown away. I must say how encouraging they were. I would stop, I would be thinking of something we could do to the sound and, immediately, the leader of the orchestra would turn and say, 'Let's try this.' We ended the rehearsal 11/2 hours before it should have ended because everyone was so well-prepared."

Ending rehearsals early is a little trick he has learnt from watching some of the world's best conductors at work, as a teen applying to the SSO for special permission to attend even closed rehearsals at Victoria Concert Hall.

So he has learnt from German maestro Kurt Masur, who picked him for a select set of masterclasses in 2012 and seen the effect it had three years ago when Russia's Gennady Rozhdestvensky ended his rehearsal with the SSO so early that the relaxed orchestra gave a masterful, much-cheered performance under the maestro's baton.

He also learnt the importance of staying within the allotted rehearsal time while still a student - he studied at River Valley High School and Raffles Junior College and did his bachelor's in music at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory before heading to Berlin's Hanns-Eisler Musikhochschule, where he completed his master's last year.

Once while rehearsing with a student ensemble in Singapore, the teacher in charge came over and closed Wong's score the very minute the rehearsal was supposed to end. "I was shocked then but it was a very good lesson," he says. "If I'd gone overtime with an American orchestra, I'd have been shot."

Music has been his passion since he was a child, according to his father Victor Wong, 65, who has retired from the Singapore Armed Forces. His mother, childcare teacher Yeo Huay Lan, 60, played the piano when she was pregnant with him and, as a baby, Wong was fond of singing along and touching the keys. The oldest of three boys, he always knew he wanted to be a musician, writing of this ambition in an essay when he was in Jurong Primary School.

"Everyone laughed at me," he recalls.

Only his parents did not. "Since he's young, everything is music, music, music to him," recalls the senior Mr Wong, who tightened his belt and bought his son a $3,000 trumpet so he could play in the River Valley High School band. "My wife and I always supported him, even though we wanted him to do other things."

The family has lived in the same fiveroom HDB flat in the western part of Singapore since the 1980s and financial matters have always been at the forefront of the young conductor's mind.

During his teens, he considered becoming a music teacher for the financial security it would have provided, but felt that would not let him pursue his interest in music to the fullest.

Luckily, a full scholarship to the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory paid for his bachelor's degree, while scholarships from the National Arts Council, Public Service Commission and Lee Kuan Yew Scholarship for Arts and Culture took care of his further education.

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