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One-On-One With Orchestra Conductor, Wong Kah Chun — Recipient Of Germany’s Highest Tribute, The Order of Merit

On 10 December 2019, Singaporean-born conductor Wong Kah Chun received the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany—an honour that may be awarded in all fields of endeavour and is the highest tribute the Federal Republic of Germany can pay to individuals for their service to the nation. He is the youngest Singaporean and also the first artist from Singapore to receive this award.

Kah Chun is also well-known for his contributions to the Singaporean community with initiatives such as Project Infinitude, Red Bean Concert and Pachelbel.Vier.Null under his belt, all targeted to help the Youth and children grow and learn in music. I spoke with Kah Chun to find out his thoughts on receiving the award, what drives him to do what he does, and why he thinks that failure has helped to shape him into who he is today.

Vera Leng: Congrats on receiving the Order of Merit! Aside from it being an award in itself, what does this mantle mean to you?

Wong Kah Chun: I was utterly shocked, and the first thing I said to Dr Ulrich A. Sante, the ambassador of Singapore’s German Embassy, was, “Are you sure you didn’t get the wrong name?”. I couldn’t believe it because these awards are usually meant for someone who has achieved a life-long set of accomplishments, but I’m 33, just beginning my musical career, and I didn’t feel deserving.

Dr Sante then explained to me that it was about bridge-building, unifying the two countries through culture and music. It’s significant and also a responsibility. But I told myself that receiving the award isn’t the endpoint of my work. In fact, it’s the starting point. I see it as a testament that I’m moving in the right direction.

It was about bridge-building, unifying the two countries through culture and music.

V: Of all genres and forms of art, why classical music?

W: It was a matter of chance. I’ve been so lucky all my life, a lot of us started the same way. I played the cornet, and I was in a concert band until JC, I was in the band in the army as well. But a significant point came when I was asked to fill in for a friend to play with the Singapore National Youth Orchestra—it was my first time playing real symphonic work by greats such as Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. And I loved it.

I remember back in primary school when we had to participate in Civics and Moral Education classes; we filled out 好公民 (direct translation: Good Citizen) exercises. I wrote that I wanted to be a musician, and everyone laughed, mostly in a joking way. Even my teacher doubted me. I felt competitive, and part of me wanted to prove everyone wrong.

“It was my first time playing real symphonic work by greats such as Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. And I loved it.”

V: How would you describe the feeling of classical music in three words? And what about the German classical music scene can you not find in Singapore?

W: Admiration, commitment, resonance. There is an opera house in almost every city in Germany, big or small, east or west. It shows how seriously the locals take classical music and how much it matters in the lives of Germans. In Singapore, it’s very different. We have curiosity, but it’s never anything more than that. It was only when I started to live in Germany did I realize that classical music is part of their normal European culture. It’s so natural that you don’t think twice about it. It’s not a special occasion but a weekly affair. It has been their form of entertainment, even when there was no television.

Classical music there felt very natural because you can genuinely feel that everyone off stage in the audience knows the music so well. There, I get to be the cultural leader of the city or town, where people come up to me to tell me that they like what I conducted. They grew up with these names, this kind of music, and everyone knows it—which is what I find so fascinating about it. I love Berlin because it’s the capital of Germany and the culture capital of the world. It was where the likes of Beethoven and Schumann once lived, all of whom I respect and love. I wanted to be literally walking the same streets as them.

V: What do you think this means for the music scene in Singapore?

W: I think it’s booming, as far as I see it. When I come back to Singapore, I see it through the lens of a tourist almost, seeing new MRT stations, seeing Jewel just come up. There are so many arts events going on in Singapore. Over the weekend there was an OMM (Orchestra of the Music Makers) concert, and I would have attended had I been in Singapore.

And it’s not just music that’s up and coming but also drama and dance. Over time I’ve seen more significant and high-quality projects. I do believe it’s only a matter of time, compared to almost ten years ago when I left Singapore in 2012. From an artist’s point of view, I didn’t feel like I had this in the past, so the Arts to me are in a better place than before. And the most beautiful part of it all is that we artists have a similar sense of conviction to carry the Arts scene forward, and it’s not wholly a competition of who’s better than who.

“We artists have a similar sense of conviction to carry the Arts scene forward.”

V: How does your view of music differ from other musicians you know?

W: With 50-100 musicians on stage, incredible emotion can be produced—sheer joy, anger, melancholy and sadness. I love feeling the goosebumps and emotions, which I find harder to perceive with other types of music. But it only happens if everyone resonates with one another. Each ensemble is only as good as its weakest link. Music, to me, is an emotional, intellectual activity that I enjoy, and also a considerable challenge because everyone plays something to contribute to the music, yet the conductor makes no sound.

He is like a football coach, in the sense that he’s responsible for the outcome, good or bad. If I could draw similarities with Naruto—he had a long fight with the big bad when the headquarters was suddenly bombed. As such, important older generation leaders were killed. An important message from that episode was that everyone’s contribution, no matter how small they are, will matter one day.

V: You have made working with youths a core tenet of your identity as a music leader. Where does this interest stem from?

W: To me, the Youth are our future. Specifically, in Singapore, it’s always a problem of having the right audience and having enough audience even, where the Arts are concerned. But if we start investing in the next generation and sharing what we like to do with younger people now, in 10-20 years, they’re the ones who will be our future ticket holders. Be it museums, concerts or exhibitions. They’ll learn to appreciate these things a little bit more.

I see my work as a way I can do a little for the art fabric in Singapore. I told myself that I should devote enough time to sharing my love for music, especially to the younger ones. I find that the best age for them to pick up music is below 7—that’s when they’re more malleable and faster in terms of acquiring skills. At 3, we should expose them to the world of music and somewhere between 4-5 years old is the perfect age to actually learn and practice. With enough guidance and new initiatives for the next generation, I think we’ll see a very different type of Singaporean.

V: What advice would you give aspiring musicians and artists who see your career trajectory as a goal to one day reach?

W: Believe in what you want to do stay focused. Set your mind on one thing that you want to do, and go for it.
Be courageous to fail. Failure is so underrated, we always talk about success stories but overlook failure. Before all this, I submitted so many applications, but I didn’t even get a single thing. You just need that one successful experience to turn your life around. I waited for it, and it came.
Lastly, Stay grounded. Even after success comes by, we need to have that same grounded mindset and feeling we had when we first started out. It’s important to stay true to who we are as artists.

“Be courageous to fail. Failure is so underrated.”

V: Interestingly, you mentioned failure. Is there a particular failure story you have that was imperative to shaping you into who you are today?

W: Yes, and it gave me the strength required to change my whole perspective of why I want to become a musician in the first place. When I was still a student in NUS, I had a teacher who was preparing me for an important audition in Europe that would change my life if I won. My teacher told me, “you’re so young, don’t harbour expectations of winning, just take it as experience. Enjoy Europe, attend concerts and just enjoy the experience overall.” Unexpectedly, I got through the first, second, and third rounds, and found myself as one of the three finalists remaining. Then I thought, “Shit, I never expected to be in this round”, and because of that, I was the least prepared for the final round, ironically.

The competition day came and went, and I emerged as the first runner up. But strangely, I wasn’t feeling thrilled. My teacher encouraged, “The other competitors were in their 30s, shouldn’t you be happy enough you’re the only one who’s younger, and the only Asian, especially.”

But to me it wasn’t an issue of winning, I regretted the level of performance I put up. I wasn’t at my very best in this final round. I reflected on it and realised I was half-hearted, and I was not serious. I didn’t deserve to be in that spot. Some other candidate could have wanted to win, and there I was taking up space because of my so-called “talent”. I took it as a game, I wasted a spot, and I hated myself for that. I regretted my actions, and that changed my perspective.

“We can still have fun, and yet always give our 100%.”

From then on, every time I stood on the stage to conduct, I made sure to be at my 100%, so that I could step off the stage with no regrets. It’s almost cliché, and it’s so simple, but it’s also so easy to simply blame our inadequacies. Back then, my teacher didn’t believe in me, I didn’t believe in myself, and I took the opportunity for granted. I thought that there would always be a next time and that I didn’t have to do great then. But I learned that sometimes opportunities come only once, and they’re not linear. Lucky for me, it happened very early in my musical journey. Everyone tells me not to be too serious, and to just have fun. But it’s not mutually exclusive. We can still have fun, and yet always give our 100%.

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