Praised by Musical America for the ​“depth and sincerity of his musicality”, Kahchun Wong will assume the role of Chief Conductor of the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra from 2023/24, building upon the deep musical bond forged with players during his time as Principal Guest Conductor of the orchestra. In the same season, he will also serve as ​“focus-artist” at Dresdner Philharmonie alongside Gautier Capuçon, Patricia Kopachinskaya and Cameron Carpenter.

Wong is celebrated by the press for his recent debuts with New York Philharmonic, Czech Philharmonic and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, and has also successfully appeared with Cleveland Orchestra, Detroit Symphony, Dresdner Philharmonie, Bamberger Symphoniker, Konzerthausorchester Berlin, Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse, Orchestre national d’Île-de-France, Luxembourg Philharmonic, Valencia Orchestra, China Philharmonic, Shanghai Symphony, Guangzhou Symphony, New Japan Philharmonic, Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra and Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra.

In 2023 and 2024, Wong’s guest appearances include returns to Cleveland Orchestra, Seattle Symphony, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Osaka Philharmonic and Singapore Symphony, in addition to debuts with London Philharmonic, Hallé Orchestra, Hong Kong Philharmonic, Orchestre symphonique de Québec, Taipei Symphony Orchestra and Taipei Chinese Orchestra.

Wong began his musical life as a cornetist in the Jurong Primary School brass band, before moving on to the trumpet in the concert and symphonic bands of River Valley High School and Raffles Junior College. After two years of national service in the Singapore Armed Forces Parade Band, he majored in composition in the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music. He then became the first recipient of the prestigious Lee Kuan Yew Scholarship (PSC) in the field of arts/culture, and studied conducting at the Hanns Eisler Musikhochschule in Berlin.

The Band Post interviews Maestro Wong on the ideas behind Tanah di Bawah Angin, the set piece written for this year’s SYF Arts Presentation for Secondary Schools.

How does it feel again to be commissioned by the SYF?

Very honoured. I have fond memories of every single one of the five SYFs I participated in as a student. Those were real character building moments.

“Land of the Winds” is the English translation of the name of the piece, describing our geographical position. Why did you choose to title it as such?

I spent many months in Singapore during the early days of COVID-19. Those tough days allowed me to think harder about what my identity was. I came across this phrase during my extensive reading and really liked how poetic it sounds. We are faced with flowing and shifting tides all around us. We have to cope with what we are dealt with. Sometimes high tide, sometimes low tide. We can’t change the tidal movements but we can adapt.

Was it a conscious decision to include common Singaporean themes in your work?

It’s part of the commission by MOE. I personally like it a lot. 

When I was in Secondary 1, the set piece was Singapura Suite. I was so impressed by how Chan Mali Chan and Dayung Sampan were expertly weaved into the composition by Jan van der Roost. Up till then, I was only familiar with western music by American composers such as James Barnes and Alfred Reed. I did not yet connect the dots that it was possible for a wind band to play music close to our heritage. 

Then in the next SYF, the set piece was Singapura Medley by David Foster – again with Chan Mali Chan, but using the material in a totally different way. I was able to appreciate what “theme and variations” was, from different master composers. In JC, we played Tales of the Sea by Soichi Konagaya, who quoted Di Tanjong Katong. His music was like a tone poem, very dramatic and beautifully written. 

How would you prefer musicians to interpret your work?

However they like it. There are some boundaries to what a quick march should be, such as a limited range of tempo. Beyond that, I would love to discover my own music through the lens of different conductors and performers.

Which is your favourite part of the piece? Why?

I don’t think of the piece as segmented portions. But the work has gone through numerous drafts. The original version is almost completely different to the final one. I am pleased that the final version is the way it is.

Your previous work for SYF, Sunny Island, has sparked a legacy among students. Seeing your work transcend generations of Singapore band students, what contributes to the longevity of your works?

You are very kind. Thank you for thinking so highly of Sunny Island. 

My first work was published by Tierolff Music in 2005, when I just started National Service. It was a movement from a symphony that premiered at the then-new Esplanade when I was in JC2. Most of my published wind music was subsequently written in the bunks at Nee Soon Camp during my time with the SAF Band. 

I do not think of each work as everlasting. They are snapshots in time. If someone discovers one of these postcards in the future and would like to listen to it, I would be most grateful.

What sort of impact and message would you like to leave for the musicians performing this piece for SYF?

I would love for the work to serve as a means for students to forge life-skills and close human bonds.

I have spent a lot of effort on perfecting the work musically and structurally. This part of the craft has been completed offstage, pre-rehearsal. When the performers take over and put the written notes into actual sound, it becomes mostly shared people-to-people experiences.

When I occasionally listen to some of the pieces I played in school, I would vaguely recall the shenanigans with my bandmates together. We even formed a private club called PTBA: “Pon-Teng Band Association.” Sometimes, those adventures would lead us into trouble with the teachers. I also would remember some of the smells associated with the work, such as one broken pipe near the school hall during a band exchange.

These recollections mean a lot to me. They make up a very important part of school life. I hope my music will create a joint focal point to students and allow precious memories to be built in the course of learning the work.

I also hope that we all learn to listen to each other better. Listening goes a long way towards developing empathy and a sense of mutual understanding between each other. If more people listened intently to each other, the world would be a better place.

(photo credit: Ayana Sato)

Kyla Kwan

Written By Kyla Kwan

Music has always been a large part of Kyla’s life. After loudly proclaiming that she will never join a performing arts CCA again, she promptly joined Crescent Girls’ School Symphonic Band and picked up the clarinet. She began her venture into the world of the Symphonic Band and continued at Eunoia Junior College under the baton of Mr Adrian Chiang. A sophomore at Nanyang Technological University, she is currently majoring in Linguistics and Multilingual Studies and is grateful for Band Fusion for giving her this opportunity to stay in touch with this lovely community. She is still struggling to park her car.