From Singapore to Nuremberg – An Interview With Wong Kahchun

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An interview by Aileen Tang

In the high-stakes, jet-setting world of international conducting, few have flown quite as high as Singaporean composer-conductor Kahchun Wong (b. 1986). After beating 13 other competitors to win the prestigious Gustav Mahler Competition in 2016 (its first winner was Gustavo Dudamel), his performances have been in ever-increasing demand. Future engagements include conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in their Lunar New Year concert in 2019 and come  September 2018, he will take up the mantle as Chief Conductor of the Nuremburg Symphony Orchestra – a rare honour as an Asian conductor.

But Singaporean fans needn’t fly to Germany to catch him in action – on September 15, he will be conducting musicians from the Nuremburg Symphony Orchestra alongside the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra in a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 at the Shaw Foundation Symphony Stage as a celebration of the friendship between Germany and Singapore.

Thrust into his role as a cultural ambassador for Singapore to the world, Wong takes it in his stride, seeing himself as carrying on the ‘wishes and spirit’ of outstanding Singaporean musician predecessors, who have ventured beyond Singapore to Germany and other places, to bring Singapore to the world and at the same time bring the world to Singapore’ – a cultural dialogue that he finds most meaningful.

“First Life”
His road to Nuremberg was by no means an overnight affair, but the culmination of years of study, apprenticeship and hard work. A trumpet player, he graduated from the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music (YSTCM) in composition, then took up the post of Conducting Assistant of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra in 2010 – the period Wong calls his “first life” – before leaving to study conducting at the Hans Eisler Musikhochschule in Berlin.

In his time with the SCO, Wong shares, he had the opportunity to learn about ethnic instruments and ways of playing ethnic music. He discovered that “traditional music in Asia is diverse and incredibly rich,” leading him to found the Asian Contemporary Ensemble (ACE), where he worked with musicians who played Indian instruments and explored the music of the Indonesian gamelan.

ACE was formed to promote the works of Singaporean and Asian composers and Wong is still championing the cause now. For his maiden concert on September 22 with the Nuremburg Symphony Orchestra as its chief conductor, he will present the world premiere (a commissioned work) by Malaysian composer Yii Kah Hoe – Concerto 4 Orchestra. Wong is full of anticipation for the new work,  “curious and excited” about how Yii – renowned for his compositions for ethnic instruments – “would bring his upbringing, education and interest in traditional South-East Asian instruments to western instruments.”

Citing the upcoming Sony Classical recording of Joshua Bell with SCO playing The Butterfly Lovers’ Violin Concerto (“a western violinist performing a Chinese concerto written for western symphony orchestra, with a Chinese orchestra”) as another example of bridging cultures, Wong exclaims that ‘it’s very exciting, what is happening in the world!’

But it is with Western classical music that Wong’s heart lies: “There is a power of Western classical music that somehow moves my soul, moves my heart. It moves me to tears.”

Beethoven im Garten
Wong will be conducting Beethoven’s 7th at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Why Beethoven, and why his seventh symphony, I asked? Wouldn’t the Pastoral better complement the venue? Wong confesses that part of the reason is selfish – the 7th is his favourite Beethoven symphony. He also explains that to him, “it feels no less pastoral than the entire 6th. You’ve got the birds, the garden of flowers in the music, a little walk in the park in the 2nd movement. You’ve got nostalgia, melancholy, You’ve got everything in the 7th symphony and it ends most importantly with this rousing dance. Everyone should stand up and dance to this Finale!”

Joining in the conversation, German Ambassador Dr. Ulrich Sante adds that besides the allusions to nature, the 7th is also associated with the Liberation wars fought in Europe. For Sante (and Wong agrees), Beethoven “speaks such a powerful message of trust and belief [and his music is] able to express such deep, powerful thoughts,” making him the perfect choice as the symbol for German-Singapore ties.

The German Embassy’s plan is that Beethoven im Garten will be an annual celebration of the connections and relationship between the two nations through the medium of music – Beethoven’s music. Sante shares that while it is Beethoven that he would like to make better known here, he is concentrating a lot more on “the artiste Kahchun Wong who grew up Singapore but learnt a part of his trade in Germany. A part of his energy, a part of his emotions, were defined by what he learnt there.” Sante sees in Wong “the incarnation of a perfect world, standing with both feet in Singapore, but at the same time being emotionally very strongly attached to other parts of the world, and building bridges to other parts of the world.”

For Wong, conducting at home “is the hardest thing. It is harder than conducting at the Mahler Competition, harder than me going to the New York Philharmonic. It’s way harder than me performing with my orchestra in Nuremburg.” He admits that the reason is a psychological one that he has imposed on himself: “This is where I was brought up. This is my home and I have my teachers in the audience and the orchestra. I want to do my very best. I don’t want to let anyone down. I don’t want to let my parents down, I don’t want to let my teachers down, I don’t want to let myself down. So I only allow myself to perform in SG when I am absolutely sure that I am at my very best.”

We can be sure then that Wong will bring his very best to his home audience at Beethoven im Garten!

BEETHOVEN IM GARTEN – Celebrating German-Singaporean Connections and Friendship 

Kachun Wong will conduct the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra with members of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major on 15 September 2018 at the Shaw Foundation Symphony Stage at the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

Admission is free

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