Lien Boon Hua is the Artistic Director of Wayfarer Sinfonietta and former Assistant Conductor of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in Katowice. He is on the conducting faculty at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music in Singapore and leads its contemporary music ensemble, OpusNovus. He was selected to be on the 2019/20 Peter Eötvös Foundation Mentoring Program and also served as Assistant Conductor to the Richard-Strauss-Festival 2018 in Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
Highlights of Lien’s recent seasons include a celebratory concert with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra for Esplanade’s 20th anniversary, and debuts with Hong Kong Sinfonietta, Jakarta Simfonia Orchestra, NFM Wrocław Philharmonic, Polish Baltic Philharmonic, Kraków Philharmonic and Transylvania State Philharmonic Orchestra. A rising opera conductor, he has led productions of operas by Britten, Rossini, Mozart and Salieri in Singapore. He has appeared at the Singapore International Festival of Arts, Gdańsk Music Festival and International Mozartiana Festival, participated in masterclasses with distinguished conductors at prominent festivals such as in Lucerne, Pärnu, Tanglewood, Seoul and Colorado and also received numerous invitations to participate at international conducting competitions around the world.
Currently based in Singapore, Lien holds conducting and performance degrees from Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and Eastman School of Music, where he was awarded the Walter Hagen Conducting Prize for his outstanding achievements.
How would you describe your career so far since your studies? What were some of the most memorable moments?
My career has been one of unexpected twists and turns. It took me three different degrees (trombone performance, wind band conducting and orchestral conducting!) to finally find my voice and calling in life, after which I’d never looked back.
My professional career started when I won my first job in Poland as the assistant conductor of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, but even winning that position was also something rather unexpected. I still remembered my initial plan after my doctoral studies at the Eastman School of Music was to spend some time in Europe to absorb the rich culture there, since most of my education was in the US at that point. I won a spot to further my conducting studies at the University of the Arts in Berlin, and was very excited to move there as Berlin was my dream city.
As I was hunting for an apartment there the summer before the semester began, I was invited to do this audition in Poland and decided to hop on a 7-hour bus to Katowice without much further thought. When I finally arrived at the bus station, I was struck by the tall and oppressive Soviet style buildings and was a little sceptical about the prospects of moving there. Then came the audition, and I was simply blown away by the excellent orchestra, the gracious people and the gorgeous and brand-new concert hall. I was sold and when they announced that I won the job immediately after my audition (usually this process takes a few weeks), it felt like that was destined to happen.
In 2019, you were appointed as the Artist Faculty at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music where you lead OpusNovus, a new music ensemble. Why do you think it is important to be showcasing contemporary works?
Contemporary music has always been an important part of my artistic outlook, as it is the music of now and composers today write music that deals with issues that we live with and care about. Many classical music concert-goers are hesitant to listen to new works because they prefer something more familiar to their ears, but it would be a pity if they missed out on something new that could open a new world to them! There is a wide diversity of styles in contemporary music too, and I truly believe that there’s something for everyone. Personally, I also enjoy a wide palette of musical styles and genres, and cannot imagine living a life where I’m confined to only one narrow period of music.
You were also selected to be part of the 2019/20 Peter Eötvös Foundation Mentoring Program – how has this program helped you in conducting ensembles?
Working with Peter gave a new perspective about working with professional orchestras and ensembles, as he had such an illustrious career and worked regularly with the best groups in the world. His advice is always razor-sharp and effective, and when you ponder deeply about them, you’d realize it comes from many years of experience before crystallising into words of wisdom with such simplicity. He is also very demanding with his students, and expects us to be absolutely prepared before we stand on the podium.
Apart from conducting orchestras, you have also ventured into chamber and opera, having formed The Wayfarer Sinfonietta in 2021 where you are currently the Artistic Director, and also working with The Opera People with their productions. Would you say chamber and opera music are new areas that are unexplored in Singapore?
When you mentioned chamber, are you referring more along the lines of chamber music, which usually comprises a small group of instruments and is unconducted; or do you mean chamber orchestra, where a typical orchestra is pared down for a more intimate setting? Unfortunately a conductor doesn’t have much to do in the 1st definition, although I do enjoy this cozy setting of music-making.
Wayfarer Sinfonietta was actually founded on the principles of chamber music-making, where each instrumentalist in the group is as much a soloist as an ensemble player, and there’s this flexibility and risk-taking that is truly special.
I would say that each genre has their loyal following, and it was very fascinating for me to step out of my comfort zone in the orchestral realm and to be inspired by fellow colleagues from these fields. The music scene is essentially a small world, and one thing I hope to achieve in the future is to bring the audiences from these diverse genres together, and I believe it would be fascinating for them to discover their own unexplored territories.
You will be conducting the Singapore Symphony Orchestra for Esplanade’s 20th anniversary programme: Illuminations. What are some of your thoughts about this opportunity?
I previously appeared with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra earlier in September for their children’s concerts in VCH, but this would be the first time appearing with SSO at the Esplanade Concert Hall. Needless to say, I’d watched countless SSO concerts over the years growing up, and to be at the helm of an important milestone like this is a dream come true. Collaborating with this wonderful lineup for Singaporean musicians too is a great privilege and I’m sure it’ll be quite a show.
Could you briefly talk about how this concert came about? What about the programme – what will the audience hear from Bacewicz overture, Mendelssohn concerto and most importantly Illuminations by Jonathan Shin and Phoon Yu?
As many would know, Esplanade turns 20 this year, and the impact our beloved performing arts centre had on our cultural landscape cannot be overstated. This concert with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra is part of their 20th anniversary celebrations and I was extremely honored to be asked to conduct this concert. For the opening of the Esplanade, SSO performed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; for the 10th year anniversary, SSO performed Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy and for the 20th year, I’m ecstatic that we finally have our very own version of a powerful symphonic work with chorus (and organ and piano!) to close the concert.
The Bacewicz is a short and exciting opener that was written in 1943 at the height of World War 2. There’s an optimism and rigor in the music, characterized by a very familiar “short-short-short-long” motif signifying victory in defiance against the dark global catastrophe. I view that rallying call also signaling our triumph over the past 2 years. Grażyna Bacewicz’s name is slowly gaining popularity around the world, not because she is a female composer, but rather she has a unique voice that demands to be heard. On top of that, she was actually the concertmaster of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra for a few years before she left the orchestra due to the war.
The Concerto for Violin, Piano and Orchestra is an early work by Mendelssohn, written when he was only 14! Despite his young age, one can already hear the maturity in his compositional craft and the wide range of emotions on display. The soloists are featured prominently (Mendelssohn wrote it for his teacher and himself to perform) and I can’t think of a better youthful duo in Singapore than Loh Jun Hong and Abigail Sin to perform it.
Lastly, I’m terribly excited about premiering Illuminations, co-written by Jonathan Shin and Phoon Yu, who incidentally also wrote themselves into the composition! This work calls for not one, but 2 choruses and 1 children’s choir plus a full size symphony orchestra. It’s a dream come true for all of us, and this work was commissioned and inspired by the Esplanade. Set in 7 movements, the music will take the audience on an exciting journey from a flicker of the idea about building this iconic landmark into the actual construction of it while the choruses sing “Break the earth and shatter sky!” and ending with our wishes for the future. As I was learning the work, I always remind myself about how lucky we are to have the Esplanade as our cultural home in Singapore.
Going forward, what are some new projects that you are embarking on? What’s next for you in five to ten years?
For next year I’m looking forward to a couple of opera productions, more guest conducting engagements and also to explore new collaborations with artists both local and abroad. I’m genuinely excited about what Singapore would look like in the next 5-10 years, as we have grown so rapidly in the past 20 years. For myself, it’s simply to keep living the dream: enjoying what I do now, and always getting better at my craft.
Lastly, what is music to you?
So far it has meant the world to me, and I am open and curious to where it might lead me to.
Photo credit: Hrotko Balint