Baton for the other side – An interview with Wang Ya-hui

by Derek Lim

This interview appeared originally in Time Out Singapore.

Wang Ya-hui is one of the few women to make a mark in the male-dominated world of leading an orchestra. Derek Lim asks her about the gender divide in conducting

Conducting, much like motorsports, is one of the last bastions of male dominance, and though no official figures exist, women are still hugely outnumbered. So when a talent like Singaporean conductor Wang Ya-hui comes along, you can’t help but ask: What’s it like to be female in this one-sided profession?

‘There’s not really that much difference,’ says the music director and conductor of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra, while chatting over tea in the Paragon. The first thing that strikes you when meeting Wang isn’t her warmth or easygoing nature, but rather how unassuming this 20-year veteran of the baton is. Only a few laughter lines betray her age, though she’ll freely admit she’s turned 40. In a career where many continue to work into their seventies and eighties, that’s an age at which most conductors are only starting to make a name for themselves. Not Wang.

Though it’s easy to appreciate talent, regardless of gender, Wang admits that being a minority in the league of conductors can occasionally be difficult. ‘I remember that ten years ago, I was in a triple minority – young, Asian and female. And in conducting, being young does not work to one’s advantage. I guess the young part isn’t applicable anymore,’ Wang says wryly. ‘But the other two still remain. I still remember my audition in Detroit [for the city’s Symphony Orchestra], where I was last on the list,’ she continues. ‘I walked out and they said, “Oh, it’s a woman.” They were already looking at their watches, ready to get out for lunch. But luckily, what speaks is the music… As a conductor, it may be more natural for women to display the feminine side of the music, but male conductors also have their feminine side. But when the music calls for it, you have to display that masculine side as well. You’re not there as woman or man, you’re there to re-create Beethoven’s music, or Richard Strauss’ music.’ (Note: she got the job.)

Her career really took off when she started winning prizes at conducting competitions – first in Tokyo (1994), then the highly regarded Dmitri Mitropoulos event in Athens (1996) and lastly in Copenhagen (1998). In 1995, Daniel Barenboim – one of the most influential conductors of his generation, and then music director of the great Chicago Symphony Orchestra – chose her as apprentice conductor on a prestigious mentoring programme, citing her ‘immensely impressive background and conducting talents’.

That’s quite an achievement for a girl who never intended to go into conducting in the first place. Born in Taiwan, Wang’s parents moved to Singapore when she was five and enrolled her in the Methodist Girls’ School to help her learn English. After two months in National Junior College, she left Singapore in 1986 for music school in the US. The then-teenager harboured no ambitions of conducting and was instead being primed to become a concert pianist. ‘At the Peabody Conservatory [in Baltimore, Maryland], we had to learn conducting as our bachelor’s curriculum. I went there and actually skipped a lot of classes at the beginning because I couldn’t see what conducting had to do with the piano. But I grew to love conducting – playing the piano was great for me, but you’re facing 88 dead keys, whereas with an orchestra, you’re working with live human beings, which teaches you a lot about management of people.’

Her charm, and the ease with which she communicates, makes her a natural choice to lead the young, talented students – mostly in their twenties – of the conservatory orchestra, who will perform a repertoire of Rossini (‘William Tell’ Overture), Rachmaninoff (‘Paganini Rhapsody’) and Schubert (Symphony No 5) at Conservatory Concert Hall on 15 November. Though it might seem a bit of a step back from her days of conducting professional orchestras, Wang is extremely proud of this young crew. Speaking of their first show, she says: ‘I had a good friend, the principal violist from Detroit, who came to visit me backstage after the performance. She couldn’t believe that these were students playing because they were just so together, and sounded even more professional than a professional orchestra. And that’s something you can achieve with young people, because they do not know their boundaries. Sometimes as an adult and especially as an older adult, you know where your limitations are and when they arrive you start to panic. Kids don’t. They do not know where their limitations are. As long as you push them, and you keep pushing them, they will meet the challenge.’

Wang Ya-hui will lead the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra on 15 Nov.

Dressed to drill

What does the well-dressed female conductor wear to work? ‘A lot of my female colleagues wear tuxedos,’ Wang says, ‘but I wear gowns. I just had one tailormade in Singapore before my concert with [well-known soprano] Renée Fleming. Conductors can’t be like soloists and make a big splash with our outfits; the clothes need to do the job. I need to move my arms for hundreds of repetitions in two hours. And then I also must not distract the orchestra musicians from looking at my dress – they need to look at my conducting! So unfortunately the dresses can

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