The possibility that a musician would emerge from Kahchun Wong’s Chinese-speaking family living in Jurong West was remote. Neither his parents nor his siblings are musically inclined. Yet, he has become one of Singapore’s hottest exports on the global classical music scene.
His debut with the New York Philharmonic in February this year was highly anticipated, when he conducted the Lunar New Year Concert and Gala. He’s the first Singaporean to lead this “Rolls-Royce of orchestras” and it was a rare privilege; his unusual Asian-oriented programme based on the theme of fire was critically acclaimed.
The 33-year-old is also the chief conductor for Germany’s Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra, which in 2017 elected him for a four-year stint. To think his story began when he enrolled in his primary school’s brass band. There, he associated music with camaraderie. “It was always a team activity,” he says. “We played football with an empty ice cream cup together. We got scolded together, had fun together, skipped band practice together. This spirit has extended to the way I think about music and how I approach different orchestras.”
Indeed, with music in his soul, he would go on to study conducting, relying on his players for practical information and knowledge. As a composition student at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, he learnt to look at musical scores from the eyes of a composer. His potential was already apparent in 2011, when he led the Conservatory Orchestra in Wagner’s Overture to The Mastersingers of Nuremberg at a public concert.
After receiving the Lee Kuan Yew Scholarship by the Public Service Commission in 2012, he began formal conducting studies at the Hanns Eisler Hochschule in Berlin, where he observed many revered conductors at work. Among them was the late Kurt Masur, who invited him to his Leipzig home where they pored over scores of great German masters Beethoven, Bruckner and Brahms.
His big break came in 2016 when he beat close to 400 international applicants to win first prize in the Gustav Mahler International Conducting Competition in Bamberg, Germany, regarded as the conducting world’s Olympic Games. The Bohemian composer Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony, which was among the set pieces, was once listed in the Guinness World Records as the longest symphony ever written.
To have surmounted it was no small feat. But Wong was more than prepared, having learnt a pointed lesson in 2010, at an audition to be an assistant conductor for a London orchestra. Then only a music composition student, he was told by his instructor to participate for the learning experience, to “just have fun” and “enjoy the fish and chips after”.
As it turned out, Wong – one of 12 international conductors flown in for the live audition – made it to the last round and was up against two professional conductors with a piece of music he had not prepared for. He did not get the position. “I hated myself,” he says. “It was not about winning or losing, but wasting the time of the people around me by not giving my very best. That changed my perspective. You only have one chance that can change your life.”
It’s this attitude that helped him win the Mahler competition, after which he received many invitations to conduct. Being young and Singaporean, with strong ideas and a vision, his is a voice that many musicians are curious about. He compares it to a French conductor leading the Singapore Chinese Orchestra and the fresh ideas he can bring to established repertoire.
Wong says his upbringing in Singapore gives him an added advantage. “What I appreciate about being Singaporean is the idea of ‘regardless of race, language, and religion’. Diversity is not so often appreciated elsewhere. I am glad to have this open mind. I don’t block myself from ideas, viewpoints, and voices.”
Despite his success, Wong remains rooted. “For me this is just the beginning. If this were a castle, I am just at the gate. I can work until I am 80. In 50 years’ time, we can see if I am a success.” Meanwhile, he’s giving his very best to every concert. “I treat every concert as the last one I will ever give.”