Singaporean Conductor Darrell Ang Reveals How He Manages International Orchestras
If given the chance to trade his conductor’s baton for a different role, Darrell Ang would choose to be a zookeeper. “I’ve loved animals since I was a child and they are a very big passion of mine,” he shares. “In fact, I wish I could be David Attenborough—he gets to live all these adventures. I would trade my baton for that lifestyle anytime.”
But fans of the artistic director and chief conductor of the Sichuan Orchestra of China can breathe easy as “you don’t get days off as a musician to pursue other things”, he quips. “There’s just so much music to study, discover and learn. And when you are a conductor, it’s even worse because you have a lot of other administrative duties for the orchestras you work for.”
When it comes to managing the talented musicians under his baton, the 40-year-old maestro, who trained in conducting at the St Petersburg State Conservatory with Russian conductor Leonid Korchmar followed by a stint at Yale University with American conductor and professor Shinik Hahm, shares that it all boils down to understanding the different cultures. For example, German orchestras prefer their conductors not to have such a strong personality and keep interactions based on utmost professionalism and around work.
Yet the same can’t be said for Italian or French orchestras because of their chatty nature. In fact, Ang claims that the way to get their attention is through sheer humour. “That’s when everyone stops talking and starts listening,” he expounds. “Besides giving the musicians a chance to get to know me, I also observe the way they move onstage and how they tune their instruments as these gives me a good idea of their mindset and character as an orchestra. I also listen to the kind of sound that they make together and what I have to do as a musical coach to fill in the gaps.”
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The best headspace to be in is one where you embody an empty vessel; a vehicle of energy transfer for the music to go through you, and for the audience to experience the music directly from the players
— Darrell Ang
To Ang, who has worked with over 20 orchestras around the world and was the youngest associate conductor at the Singapore Symphony Orchestra in 2008, first impressions are crucial. “The success of a concert banks on the first five minutes of your first encounter with the orchestra.” It is common for orchestras to have a roster of guest conductors throughout the year, and the experienced ones will pick up on the subtle nuances and mannerisms that are often unsaid but prevalent in the rehearsal room.
He reveals that rehearsals typically take no more than three days. Sometimes much lesser, especially when it comes to experienced orchestras, which only require a 20-minute run through before the performance. “In fact, I would like to do without rehearsals but that’s impossible, especially if you are meeting the orchestra for the first time—then it’s best that you have at least one session (which is usually three-hours long) together,” he says. And the role of a conductor differs depending on the level of maturity and experience of an orchestra. For a top-tier orchestra, the conductor is a producer who frames the vision for all to comprehend, while giving the musicians the freedom to do what they do best. With younger and inexperienced orchestras, the conductor takes them through the rules of the ensemble, including how to engage their talents so they can contribute to the larger musical picture with fellow musicians.
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“Knowing when to take a step back is very important to me as that is when all of the musicians within the orchestra are listening to each other. Collectively, they also feel an energy that is started and channeled by the conductor,” he explains.
As a seasoned conductor, Ang no longer gets cold feet before stepping on stage. “It’s not nervousness, nervous is not the word. But rather it’s an anxiety for the performance to go well—according to the way I want it. The best headspace to be in is one where you embody an empty vessel; a vehicle of energy transfer for the music to go through you, and for the audience to experience the music directly from the players.”