Mind Your Conduct(or) | A List
The ones always standing out in their field, the maestros of directing music, the conductor. The ones who, with a single wave of their arms, can either enliven or silence a room. You don’t hear them speak, yet they manage to hold your attention with a seemingly infinite number of gestures. For all their charisma, can these living and breathing maestros hold their own against AI and robots of the future?
Singapore conductor Wong Kahchun, 33, who is the chief conductor of the Nuremberg Symphony, is hopeful that human conductors will not be extinct in the digital future. He was in Singapore to conduct the Singapore Symphony Orchestra in the concert titled Hope and Redemption, featuring acclaimed flautist Karl-Heinz Schütz. We pick Wong’s brains for his views on the future of conducting and the work that goes on behind the scenes. Read on for his thought-provoking replies.
We live in an age of Alexa, Siri and AlphaGo. How do you think the progress of technology and AI might affect the role of the conductor?
I am clueless about technology but love it to bits. Because of media streaming platforms like YouTube and Naxos, I have been able to encounter, study and enjoy music in a way I would never have if I was born even 10 years earlier. I don’t believe I would be the musician I am without it.
But what does the conductor do? Try to not disturb the orchestra by staying out of their way when they are making music; this can be easily replaced by technology. Connect hearts in the concert hall? Slightly challenging, but I think we can check that box in the near future. Make uncalculated errors in every performance so that the imperfection intensifies the aural experience? Hopefully, though unlikely.
I believe that the quest for perfection, while being imperfect in all the right moments, make us artists who we are.
What do you do to keep fit and healthy for conducting?
Recently, post-concert drinks and frequent airline food have taken an unfortunately visible toll on my belly. My personal trainer makes sure I stick to a cleaner diet, which is easier said than done, but I am now more committed than ever before to improving my health, as I approach middle age.
In the past, it is usually my back and shoulders that ache more during and after a performance, rather than my arms. I try to keep my movements more efficient now. I would like to think that this helps me improve my work with the musicians — they probably appreciate me jumping less on the podium!
What are the top three songs on your personal playlist, and why?
I currently have Klaus Tennstedt’s Mahler Symphony No. 8 with the London Philharmonic on my list. I have to conduct Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 for the first time in 2021, and I have to start listening to it now if I want to know the music well enough by then.
I also have Vasily Kalinnikov’s Symphony No. 2, which I will be conducting in a few weeks’ time, on my playlist. Kalinnikov is one of my favourite composers, although he unfortunately died just a few days short of his 35th birthday in 1901. I look forward to studying more of his music.
And there’s Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence by Dream Theater: one of my eternal favourites, which has accompanied me on many occasions since my National Service days.
The responses have been edited and condensed. Details about Hope & Redemption Concert here.
This article has been updated and an earlier version of the article ran on 17 October, 2019.