Music Is: An Interview with Kahchun Wong, Conductor of Beeth∞ven 360°
This July, on International Friendship Day, the world will see the premiere of a massive musical project unlike any ever done before. In celebration of renowned composer Beethoven’s 250th anniversary, watch as Beeth∞ven 360° takes to your screens on 30th July.
As its name implies, Beeth∞ven 360° takes the form of a 360° video that unites an international lineup of over a thousand musicians coming together in a virtual performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. These include the Chicago Symphony, Dresden Boys Choir, Hong Kong Philharmonic, Japan Philharmonic, London Philharmonic, Munich Philharmonic, China National Centre for the Performing Arts Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Nuremberg Symphony, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Chorus and Philharmonic Chorus of Tokyo.
Led by Singaporean conductor Kahchun Wong, the performance will also include a singalong comprising participants from all over the world as they come together to perform the renowned “Ode to Joy” segment. Speaking to Kahchun about the uniqueness of the project, the conductor elaborates: “The work of a conductor is about inspiration and reaction, where you’re there to give a physical indication as you react to whatever you’re hearing during the orchestra. Think of it like in tennis, where it’s a series of instantaneous responses, and you’re passing the ball back and forth, much like how an orchestra reacts to a conductor’s movements and the conductor in turn reacts to the sound. But for a project like this, it’s a little different of course.”
At the start of the year, when concerts were mostly still ongoing, Kahchun was still based in Germany and France. But once the coronavirus got serious, and performances were cancelled, he decided to return home to Singapore and spend time being with his parents. “I think it’s been a good time for personal reflection, spending time with family and the people who matter most, and reconnecting with people,” he says. “You slow down, and end up noticing things that you didn’t before; like how when we stepped out again after circuit breaker, I noticed how the grass was tall and unkempt, and there’s a certain wild beauty to that we would never see under normal circumstances.”
The project itself started around mid-May, giving the team a very short amount of time to get it ready for end July. “In the beginning, I was sending out messages to music colleagues and friends who might be interested in joining, and it was so heartening that so many of them were enthusiastic and really wanted to come onboard, and in turn, asked their own friends if they wanted to join too,” says Kahchun. “The full orchestra and crew were confirmed around mid-June, and even then, we still were getting requests from people who wanted to come onboard the project.”
For Kahchun and his team, with how new the entire project has been, the process has been rather tedious, as they learn to adapt their methods of creation and conducting along the way. “We’ve got people inputting the music note by note into our software, engravers, proofreaders, and the musicians making editorial markings on top of Beethoven’s own original remarks on his sheet music, and so much consulting with the musicians and choirs to explain the diction, note endings and beats,” he says.
“It can be difficult to coordinate musicians across the world, beyond us giving them notes on how we want them to interpret the sheet music,” he adds. “To align them, we used click tracks to create a tempo to follow across various passages, sort of similar to how you might produce a pop song in the studio. We’d then piece it all together in the recording studio, send it back to the musicians, and get them to record their parts on video. And even then, there’s still so many coordinating factors, especially with the sheer number of people coming together to do this.”
Something that was rather refreshing for Kahchun was the use of technology, beyond what one might find in a typical live concert setting. “I was especially excited to be working with our animators, many of whom had come from the gaming industry,” he says. “This was a great opportunity to have them help us reimagine the visuals that would accompany the concert, and many of them came in with very fresh perspectives on how to present the music in visual form. It’s all so new and exciting, and we were all driven by this collective adrenaline and unity to come together to do something special.”
If anything, Kahchun welcomes the introduction of tech into music, allowing artists to rethink ways to engage with audiences. “A digital experience can never replace a live one, but the circumstances we’ve found ourselves in have definitely speeded up our efforts to introduce more digital work into the arts scene,” says Kahchun. “Take for example how a large part of the budget for staging an opera goes into massive sets and elaborate costumes, but given the right team, we could replace those with projections, augmented reality and video, and see how we can utilise those in a live setting instead, melding tech and tradition in a tasteful way. It definitely changes your perspective on what’s possible, and the viability and affordability of producing a work.”
Beethoven’s music has always been great, but it is his 9th Symphony especially that has resonated with both music lovers and those outside of the scene for centuries. Throughout history, the 9th Symphony has been used in some of the most significant events, whether during the World Wars, or the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the Tiananmen Square incident. Not only that – Ode to Joy specifically is also the European Union’s anthem, and is especially significant considering how Germany has just assumed presidency of the EU this July.
“Beethoven’s Ode to Joy is really about how all men should be equal, and not bogged down by social conventions, free as a society to do what they want. Music isn’t just for the aristocrats, but also for the common man. That’s what makes his 9th Symphony so appropriate for International Friendship Day,” says Kahchun. “It’s interesting how this was meant to be the year commemorating Beethoven’s 250th birthday, but so many of them have been cancelled or rescheduled. With this project, we really wanted to bring people together and show the tenacity of the human spirit to overcome any trials.”
“What’s more, we don’t want to restrict our audience to simply classical music lovers. This is such a recognizable piece of music, that most people outside the classical music scene would also know it when they hear it,” he concludes. “It really speaks volumes about the music of Beethoven, and how it is able to reach out to so many friends around the world. In our project, we’ve united over a thousand musicians from around the world, and really, it’s something that shows how we will remain strong together, and overcome any challenges thrown our way, as the human race.”