A Drink With... Wong Kah Chun

Close Up

January 11, 2018 | BY Chong Seow Wei

The conductor on how he navigates the symphony of his life with vim and vigour.

You may be familiar with Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Mahler. You might be surprised, however, to hear a common Singaporean surname uttered in the same breath as these classical music greats. This has been the reality for Wong Kah Chun since he won the prestigious Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in 2016. He has been travelling the world since, living out of a suitcase, thanks to a hectic touring schedule guest conducting with different orchestras in different cities nearly every week.

The 31-year-old, who got into music by chance when he was selected to play the cornet in his primary school’s brass band, studied at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music before scoring the Lee Kuan Yew scholarship to study conducting in Berlin’s Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler. 

This September, the National Arts Council 2017 Young Artist Award recipient and 2016 Gen.T lister will officially begin his stint as chief conductor of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra in Germany. He hopes this will keep him grounded, literally, for a while. Here, he shares about his conducting approach and how he's hoping to make music more inclusive.

Photography: Long Fei/Munster + Long Fei; Grooming: Angel Gwee, using Kevin.Murphy and Laneige

Under cover

“Before I guest conduct with an orchestra, I try to attend one of its concerts incognito beforehand so I can understand its style, limits and where I can push it further. I’ll also know how the performance hall and the audience are like, and can then visualise how I want my concert to be. I’m a kiasu Singaporean like that.”

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A Drink With... Wong Kah Chun
Image: Wong Kah Chun

On the track of life

“Musicians are like athletes; we need time to ourselves to practise and study to maintain our skills. On days off, we spend time improving ourselves, which is why I’ve been more careful not to overload myself with work. After all, each concert is my testimonial and I never want to perform below standard.”

Image: Unsplash

Alone time

“The best thing about travelling is being completely alone on the plane, when my phone isn’t ringing, and text messages and e-mails aren’t coming in. I use flight time to watch movies and catch up on sleep, as I usually wake up at 4.30am, work, study, and then head to bed at 11pm.” 

A Drink With... Wong Kah Chun
Image: Wong Kah Chun

Spreading the love

“I’d like to help expose more people to music. It’s important for the next generation in particular, as it’s what I’ve been lucky to experience. That’s why Marina Mahler (granddaughter of composer Gustav Mahler) and I established the four-month music pilot project, Project Infinitude, for less privileged and special-needs children, and why I’m working with Child at Street 11.”

Image: Hibiki

Zen zone

“Three things I do to unwind: have at least a dram of whisky—my favourite is Hibiki 17 Year Old—but after letting it ‘breathe’ for about four hours in a glass while I study; walk around the town I’m in; and play with cats, especially my golden chinchilla Persian cat in Singapore when I get to see her.” 

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