For conductor Kah Chun Wong, keeping time with his lifelong love for music has not always been a symphony.
BY DAPHNE ONG
Published on 30 August 2016
BY DAPHNE ONG
KAH CHUN WONG IS ENJOYING A METEORIC RISE IN THE WORLD OF CLASSICAL MUSIC. The young conductor has already bagged multiple international prizes, including first prize in both the International Conducting Competition Jeunesses Musicales Bucharest in 2013 and the prestigious Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition this year. Barely 30 years old, he has conducted orchestras in 20 cities across four continents.
However, the journey was uphill from the get-go. As a primary-schooler, Wong’s first mention of ambitions to be a musician drew chuckles. He took this light-hearted dismissal of his dream and turned it into positive motivation. “I thought, ‘Just you wait and see!’ ” Wong says of his resulting gutsiness.
Throughout his student years, countless challenges leapt onto his path. In spite of having supportive parents, music lessons would have been unaffordable for Wong if not for help from his teachers. Moreover, social pressure materialised in the form of ceaseless advice for him to focus on studying math and science in order to land a “real” job. Even after receiving the distinguished Lee Kuan Yew Scholarship to study opera and orchestral conducting at the Hanns-Eisler Musikhochschule in Berlin, Germany, the fear of solitude and being alone in a foreign land haunted him.
After surviving the learning years, Wong emerged thriving in the world of conducting. Winning the Gustav Mahler competition resulted in invitations for professional engagements. These days, he is so much in demand, he finds it difficult to say no and find time for himself. “I have so many things I really want to do, but life is short,” says Wong.
Humility and awareness of being young — both age- and experience-wise — keep Wong focused on improving his craft. “How do I work with professional orchestras in Europe, conducting their music, when they have done it 50 times more than I have, and are twice my age? My solution is to speak to as many people in the music business as possible — conductors, orchestral musicians, managers, and even audiences. Then, I study and prepare the music as much as I can. Finally, I remove all traces of ego in front of the orchestra and take it as another learning experience.”
Big things await Wong. In addition to conducting one of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra’s 20th anniversary concerts last month, he will be working with Marina Mahler, granddaughter of composer Gustav Mahler, to curate a special project for children from less-privileged backgrounds. “Wouldn’t it be lovely if more people have access to wonderful art, and through mutual understanding of humanity’s wisdom, gain a heart full of compassion? Maybe this might bring a few moments of peace in turbulent times. Big words, but no one said we couldn’t dream!”