Victor Tam is the Founder and Chairman of the Hong Kong Wind Philharmonia, Hong Kong Chamber Wind Philharmonia, Hong Kong Youth Wind Philharmonia and the Hong Kong Junior Wind Philharmonia.
After graduating from the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts in 1992, Mr Tam was awarded the Hong Kong Jockey Club Scholarship to study at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, where he received the “Oboe Artistry Award”. He then furthered his studies at the Indiana University School of Music with a full scholarship and teaching assistant-ship.
Victor started his musical career as Principal Oboe of the Suwon Philharmonic Orchestra in Korea with whom he performed until 1999. While with the Suwon Philharmonic Orchestra he has performed extensively throughout Korea and on concert tours to Thailand, England and Spain. He currently serves as orchestra and wind orchestra director at numerous schools throughout Hong Kong and under his leadership, several have achieved highest prizes in Hong Kong competitions.
We spoke to Victor about his musical influences, his time spent in Oberlin Conservatory of Music, his stints with the various orchestras, and his professional career as an oboist and conductor.
Why did you choose the oboe, out of the other wind band instruments?
It was recommended by my cousin, who said the oboe is smaller and more portable as compared to the cello which he had to carry around as a cellist.
Who are your musical influences?
I was lucky to have many great oboe teachers who were great musicians. I remember my first teacher Mr Chan Kwok Cheong, who played me an excerpt from Dvorak at my lesson, and I immediately fell in love with the sound of the instrument. I then had many great teachers, including Peter Cooper, Robert Sheena, James Caldwell and Marc Lifschey. They weren’t just oboe teachers; they all had very different influences on discipline, dance and singing.
How was it like studying in Oberlin Conservatory of Music as a student of James Caldwell?
As Oberlin is a liberal college, students have a lot of freedom. Mr Caldwell is a teacher who offered a lot of room for creativity so that his students can explore in bringing out the best of themselves. He was a guiding figure, and always ensured that we were led to the point that he wanted us to reach.
He loves Bonsai trees, and has his own garden in his backyard with over 200 different sizes of trees. He always used his bonsai tree theory; that we are all from different backgrounds and grew up in varied environments, where some of us need a wire to ensure we grow the right way, while others would be left to grow and then trimmed later. As Mr Caldwell was a specialist on the Baroque Oboe and Viola de Gamba, his teachings were emphasized on ‘dancing in the right style’. He also taught us how to phrase our music by putting words into them.
Could you also describe your experience studying with Marc Lifschey?
Studying with Mr. Lifschey was a great experience as he was the principal oboist of the Cleveland Orchestra and San Francisco Symphony for over 40 years. However, it seemed to me that he was a picky musician as he was never happy about the many recordings he had done. I remembered asking him about his favourite recording but he would always answer ‘none’ without thinking. As I was his assistant at that time, I felt that he had pinned a lot of hope on me despite the countless times that I tried to give up after having a lesson with him. He was very demanding, but yet his nature brought me to a new level of understanding of what music actually is.
My most unforgettable memory of him was at his last performance at Bloomington in Summer 1995 where I played second oboe to him on Shostakovich Symphony 5 in the Summer Festival Orchestra. Till today, the slow movement’s oboe solo still rings next to my years as Mr Lifschey is someone who can sing on the instrument with a voice that touches your heart. I also remembered the summer after I had a trial in Korea and got a job, he was telling me that his wish was for me to bring my style of playing to the other side of the world.
You served as Principal Oboe of the Suwon Philharmonic Orchestra till 1999, and was also guest Principal oboe with various orchestras. Were there any performances or moments that stand out in your memory for their significance?
I was working full time in the Suwon Philharmonia Orchestra where we had many concerts and tours. Having started my first principal oboe job there, the musicians were very nice to me as I was the only Chinese at that time. They treated me very well and gave me a lot of good memories, and I also forged some sincere friendships.
After I came back to Hong Kong, I played with many other orchestras. One of the most exciting memories was an urgent call from Guangzhou Symphony, where I had to play a concert with only one rehearsal as their principal was down with an illness one day before the concert. I had so little time to prepare and rehearse but it was a great experience. After that concert, I continued to play with them for a few months.
You are the current director of Hong Kong Wind Philharmonia, and also the band director of a few other school bands in Hong Kong, why did you decide to take up conducting?
It was the year after Mr Lifschey passed away in 2000. I still remembered his wish to bring his playing style to Asia, and felt that it would be faster to share his ideas with an ensemble than my small group of oboe students.
At the same time, I also saw many Hong Kong wind and brass players returning from their studies abroad, but yet there weren’t enough playing positions for them. I thought that a professional level wind band would be a good platform for these young musicians to play music together, and hence formed the Hong Kong Wind Philharmonia and also take up several conducting positions at universities and schools. Sharing Mr Lifschey’s musical ideas on the podium has definitely been more efficient than if I only teach oboe students.
Do you feel that your experience as a professional oboist has helped you in your conducting career?
Yes for sure. An oboist that sits in the middle of an orchestra is in the best position to hear the sound of every instrument. Luckily for me, I had multiple opportunities to play my favourite repertoires such as the Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky symphonies and Mozart piano concertos. As these pieces are basic musical vocabularies, my playing experiences have helped a lot on what kind of sound I wanted to hear and look for as a conductor.
What do you find to be the most challenging part of being a musician?
A musician’ path isn’t as easy as some non-musicians may have imagined. Unlike most people in the workforce, musicians need to set aside time and energy after their work to practice their instrument or do score study. The time and efforts we spend to become a musician since young is much more than many other careers.
When you have been working in any field for at least 20 years, you should be in a higher position within that field. For musicians however, it is not always the case. I remembered someone from the technology field saying that once you graduate from university, the knowledge you have learnt will no longer be of use to the world. However as a musician, we have to understand the history in music knowledge, and also constantly learn about the new repertoire that comes in almost everyday.
What is the most fulfilling aspect of your life as a professional musician?
As a conductor and also an educator, seeing non-musicians appreciate and support music would be the most fulfilling aspect for me. The other aspect is to see young musicians grow to become more mature and artistic within the music circle. Seeing my students grow to have better discipline, understand the meaning of teamwork, and having a platform to express their feelings, is a very amazing sight.
There is no doubt that music is an important part of everyone’s life, but not everyone realizes this. Music hooks up with human emotions that give them a channel to express their feelings.
At last, I do hope more people would realize that music education is a cultural injection to young people, where it not only teaches them music, but also teaches them life values, and to have an artistic mind which grows their patience, vision, and sharing.