Something new is happening in Dresden. In its century-and-a-half existence, the Dresden Philharmonic’s roster of conductors – both Chief and Guest – has been staunchly European. That situation is imminently going to change, however, when Kahchun Wong takes up the post of Principal Guest Conductor of the orchestra in September 2023.

Kahchun Wong
© Ayane Sato

Born in Singapore in 1986, and currently based in Japan, Wong’s career has from the outset seen him darting back and forth between Asia and Europe. His connection with Germany goes especially deep, beginning in Bamberg at the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition, where he won first prize in 2016. His first full-time conducting role was just 40 miles away, at the Nuremberg Symphony, serving as their Chief Conductor from 2018 to 2022. Back on his home continent, since 2021 Wong has been closely associated with the Japan Philharmonic, initially as Principal Guest Conductor, becoming their Chief Conductor this year. (Earlier this summer, Wong was also appointed Principal Conductor of The Hallé in Manchester, beginning in autumn 2024.)

However, Wong’s musical path actually began as a performer. “I was very lucky to be in a school with a brass band. I was on the cornet for six years in primary school and then from secondary school onwards, I started playing the trumpet.” For a time, Wong regarded this as a career choice, but an injury forced him to change plans. “I was in the military band for two years. I really wanted to be a professional trumpet player, but I had a nerve injury of my upper lip at the end of my first year. For me to remain in the band I had to be useful – I started composing marches, and once they were composed of course they needed someone to rehearse and conduct them. It was really just serendipity.”

Kahchun Wong conducts
© Angie Kremer

At that time, there were no conducting majors available, so Wong studied composition, but continued to develop his skills on the podium. “My friends in the composition studio, when they needed a conductor for an ensemble or orchestral work, I became the de facto person. It was very hard and I learned a lot from my colleagues in the orchestra.” Wong also cites Esa-Pekka Salonen as being “a very important inspiration and role model” at this time, due to his similarly dual role as composer and conductor. He subsequently pursued a Master’s degree in conducting in Berlin, an experience he found challenging. “Coming from Singapore, which is a very young country, I had a huge culture shock when I first arrived.”

Wong’s connection with the Dresden Philharmonic was also serendipitous, beginning in 2021 when he was asked to step in at the last minute when their scheduled conductor was unavailable. It was during this performance, featuring Brahms’ Symphony no. 2, that he began to appreciate the orchestra’s home, the Kulturpalast (recently featured, together with the Dresden Philharmonic, in the Cate Blanchett movie Tár). “It’s quite remarkable the sound I was experiencing in that hall in the Kulturpalast. It’s a really good hall, I would say one of the more underrated ones in Europe.”

The concert hall was completely renovated and reopened in 2017, and its environmental credentials have been hugely upgraded this year as part of the orchestra’s “Luftwurzeln” initiative, involving a switch to green electricity and extensive landscaping to the surrounding area. The project’s name translates to “aerial roots”, symbolising the Dresden Philharmonic’s desire to extend beyond their immediate surroundings and connect more deeply to the wider world.

Dresden Kulturpalast interior
© Jörg Simanowski

It’s entirely fitting that the start of Wong’s role at the orchestra, being their first non-European conductor, is part of the culmination of this project. It reaches its finale in September, in the opening concerts of the 2023–24 season which, curated and conducted by Wong, bring together well-known Western works with the world premiere of a new piece, Reflection of Shadow, by Thai composer Narong Prangcharoen. 

Working with living composers is important to Wong. “Southeast Asia is the region I come from, and I feel passionately about trying to stimulate, encourage and be a catalyst for new orchestral work to emerge. Japan has a long history with Western classical music; other regions, China, South Korea, also have very prominent composers. But looking at the Southeast Asian region, there aren’t so many.” Wong’s aim is to create what he calls a “cultural dialogue”, to help orchestral music flourish in the region. This has in turn been helped by the enthusiastic attitude Wong has found at Dresden. “This is one of those magical relationships that I find worth cherishing, because the people at Dresden have been so open-minded and embracing of my ideas.”

Akira Ifukube’s Sinfonia Tapkaara: III. Vivace.

Another of Wong’s concerts later in the season will feature music by Japanese composer Akira Ifukube, best known to many as the man responsible for the Godzilla film scores from the 1950s onwards. Wong will be conducting one of Ifukube’s best-known concert works, the Sinfonia Tapkaara, a piece that takes its inspiration from different forms of ritual dance. Wong got to know Ifukube’s music, and that of other Japanese composers, after beginning his relationship with the Japan Philharmonic. “Japan has a lot of secrets and it’s the same with music – there’s a lot of very good compositions which I had never heard of until I started living here. I had the chance to explore the Ifukube pieces with the Japan Philharmonic, and so I’m very glad that the Dresden Philharmonic is also adventurous enough to take it on and play it.”

These works by Ifukube and Prangcharoen are programmed alongside well-known, large-scale Western works: Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, Elgar’s Cello Concerto and Mahler’s Symphony no. 1. Wong became familiar with Mahler back at home. He describes his music as being “less Germanic, just international”, with “no roots, so to speak – his music was inclusive”. Of Mahler’s First Symphony, Wong says, “I have a very strong affinity with that piece”, and he ascribes this affinity to his own background, both playing within a military band, as well as the inclusivity of his home environment, where “you have a mosque for Muslims, Buddhist temples, different churches, Protestant and Catholic, and so on, all within walking distance. That kind of inclusive nature and eclecticism has always been in my culture and in my life, so Mahler really resonates.”

Kahchun Wong rehearses Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with the Japan Philharmonic in 2021.

Wong says he is especially looking forward to bringing together this Asian and European repertoire. “Also sprach Zarathustra is one of the great works, and what I like about that of course is the whole connection to nature, and to a great German philosopher. And then we have the Prangcharoen, which is very much connected with Thai philosophy. The Elgar is a little bit more pensive, with the war around that time. The Mahler and Ifukube are both very programmatic in many ways but also very serious. So this is the interest that I have, work inspired by Asian spirit and values juxtaposed alongside very central European work, I think these parallels and the contrast really excites me, to see how they work together.”

I ask Wong if he finds himself approaching music from East and West in distinct ways, and he says he doesn’t. “I don’t approach them differently. I think it’s the same kind of scholarship and tradition and research that goes into when we play a Thai composer versus a Japanese composer. It’s really about the individuality of each work that needs to be researched, the philosophy behind why the notes are organised in this way.” This is informed by his experiences with the Japan Philharmonic who, Wong says, “don’t have that whole connection with the European tradition, which means we start without preconceptions. You can look at these famous pieces with a different kind of vision.”

Kahchun Wong conducts his arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra.

Although Wong is undeniably a forerunner as one of the few Asian conductors in Europe – blazing a trail that surely others will follow in due course, a trail to be extended further in 2024 when he takes over at The Hallé in Manchester – his attitude is a humble one. “For me it’s always more important to talk about the art, the music-making on stage and whether there’s chemistry with the musicians, more than the glass ceiling.” As such, he doesn’t see East and West as a binary but something more fluid and, again, inclusive. “I was brought up in this inclusive society where there’s tolerance, and we learn to understand the differences. So this whole division of East/West is not interesting to me. Let’s move on.”

As for the broader future of classical music, Wong’s outlook is similarly positive. He describes how, with three orchestras close to him, in Singapore, Cleveland and Japan, audiences are more engaged and coming in greater numbers than before the pandemic. “I think there are huge challenges, it’s not going to be easy. But there’s all these ways of reaching out in the social media sphere, and there’s more awareness of classical music now by people around the world. So I am very optimistic, I really see a bright future for classical music.”

Kahchun Wong conducts
Strauss, Elgar and Prangcharoen with the Dresden Philharmonic on 2nd and 3rd September 2023, and Mahler and Ifukube on 18th February 2024.

This article was sponsored by Dresden Philharmonic.