Interview: TFI talks to Maestro Lü Shao-Chia and Christopher Cheong of the Orchestra of the Music Makers
Aileen Tang talks to Maestro Lü Shao-Chia, Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra of Taiwan, and Christopher Cheong, Chairman of the Orchestra of the Music Makers’ (OMM) Artistic Development Committee, ahead of OMM’s upcoming concert of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra and William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast conducted by Maestro Lü on Saturday.
The Flying Inkpot: OMM has performed many choral symphonic works over the years. To what extent is this an indication of OMM’s overall artistic direction?
Christopher Cheong: We enjoy collaborating with other groups, from choirs to vocal ensembles and other orchestras!
The choral-symphonic repertoire allows us, as instrumentalists, to have a chance to create shared musical experiences with choir members and present some of the great masterpieces in this genre to Singapore audiences.
For example, we presented what was only the 2nd Singaporean performance of Mahler’s 8th Symphony in 2015, and the Singaporean premiere of Bernstein’s Mass last year. We’ve been told that our upcoming performance of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast will be only its second-ever performance in Singapore!
TFI: What was the vision behind presenting Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra and William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast together?
CC: We’ve wanted to perform the Walton for at least 5 years now, but had not found the right occasion to do so, so we’re delighted that we’re finally able to do so this year! It is such an epic piece, but so incredibly fun too!
The Strauss is also such a great work, and a musical response to one of the most influential philosophical treatises of the 19th century – with of course one of THE most famous openings composed. (Ed: The very recognizable fanfare appears in Stanley Kubrick’s film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey‘)
Both these works deal with many timeless questions in very contrasting ways – the humanist perspective (Strauss, based on Nietzsche), and the divine (Walton, based on the Bible).
TFI: What do you see as the orchestra’s biggest challenge in preparing for and performing this programme?
CC: Both pieces have significant technical and musical challenges which every musician and chorus member will have to overcome both individually and collectively. However, we do not believe that these challenges, while significant, are insurmountable. With Maestro Lü’s expert guidance, the collective effort and will to overcome those challenges might just result in a very special performance!
TFI: How did the OMM’s collaboration with Maestro Lü come about?
CC: We have known of Maestro Lü and admired his work for a long time, and when the opportunity to work with him arose, it was an easy decision to make. It will be a very enriching opportunity for our musicians to work with and learn from a conductor of his experience and standing.
Lü Shao-Chia: I heard Maestro Chan Tze Law with OMM in Taipei (Ed: OMM performed at the Taipei International Choral Festival in 2017) and the spirit of their music-making impressed me a lot. What impressed me the most was the high level of their music-making through their enthusiasm. I think they truly know the ‘joy of music,’ which really made a strong connection with the audience. So when they approached me to conduct this concert, I gladly accepted their invitation.
TFI: Maestro Lü, you completed a degree in Psychology before embarking on your conducting career. How has your understanding of psychology influenced the way you approach conducting?
LSC: Music-making is all about communication, trust and love. The study of psychology at Taiwan University not only helped me immensely in all these aspects, but also in listening to my own inner voice from the bottom of my heart. This has become my philosophy and foundation of music-making for decades.
TFI: Having conducted orchestras across Europe and in Asia, is there any difference between European and Asian orchestras? Is your approach to them different?
LSC: Generally, European orchestras have more individual self-consciousness and they are more active in expressing emotion. Asian orchestras have more collective discipline, but are more restricted in expressing personal feeling. According to these differences in their temperament, I will have a slightly different way of communication. However, the goal remains the same – to get to the essence of the music. That won’t change.
TFI: You’re lauded as an opera conductor as well. How does that knowledge and experience affect the way you approach works like the ones on this programme?
LSC: I love the human voice which, for me, is like air and water. Working at the Komische Oper Berlin and Hannover for years and conducting a wide range of opera repertoire have made me love the human voice even more. In this programme, I think the ‘singing’ is an essential element of both pieces – even in many places within Also Sprach Zarathustra. One might not think of this Strauss piece as a vocally related piece, but you have to treat every part of instrument as a vocal line to achieve the beauty that Strauss truly wants.
TFI: You didn’t, originally, as a child, intend to pursue a professional career in music. Many of the musicians you’ll be conducting in OMM aren’t professionals, yet playing in the orchestra is a significant part of their lives. What advice would you give to these musicians, and what is your personal opinion of the impact of volunteer orchestras like OMM?
LSC: I cherish my years as an ‘amateur’ very much, as it was a time of a ‘pure’ love for music. When I was in college in Taipei, I was the pianist for a choir. One day, I was asked to conduct a rehearsal, and that was an epiphany for me as a musician. I will never forget that crucial moment of my life, which happened during my ‘amateur’ years. I treasure the fact that I became a professional musician after years of searching, as I discovered that this is really what I should do for my life and this is something I should dedicate all my concentration and diligence to. Thus, my advice to amateur musicians is, to combine the pure enthusiasm and joy of your ‘first encounter with music’ with a ceaseless effort in pursuing perfection and professionalism – as OMM will in this concert.
TFI: What are you most looking forward to in this collaboration with OMM?
LSC: I am really looking forward to experiencing the same spirit and joy of music that I witnessed in Taipei with this wonderful orchestra!
The Orchestra of the Music-Makers play Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra and William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast on 17 Aug 2019 at the Esplanade Concert Hall. Tickets available at https://www.sistic.com.sg/events/cstra0819