Cultural VTL just as vital in reconnecting the world

Singaporean conductor Wong Kah Chun led the world-renowned Bamberg Symphony in a full performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony on Dec 31, 2021

Singaporean conductor Wong Kah Chun led the world-renowned Bamberg Symphony in a full performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony on Dec 31, 2021, © ST FILE

12.01.2022 - Article

Virtual Beethoven concert warms the soul, but physical encounters forge stronger ties and further cooperation.

Norbert Riedel and Michael Tay
For The Straits Times

On New Year’s Eve, Singaporean conductor Wong Kah Chun led the world-renowned Bamberg Symphony in a full performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

Its uplifting chorus of Ode To Joy provided a moment of joy and hope for our souls. The concert was live-streamed on The Straits Times’ digital media channels and also broadcast during primetime on on German television on New Year’s Day.

Although not yet a physical homecoming for Wong, the live performance complemented his digital project of the same work in July on International Friendship Day 2020, where he convened more than 1,000 musicians and singers around the world to sing the Ode together as a sign of global solidarity.

Indeed, the transcendental emotional and intellectual content of Beethoven’s 9th has offered hope for humanity in difficult times.

For example, American conductor Leonard Bernstein led the symphony in Berlin on Christmas Day in 1989 as part of the celebrations to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall, altering the lyric “Freude/Joy” into “Freiheit/Freedom” to reflect the mood of the day.

During World War I, German prisoners of war serving their time in Tokushima Prefecture were allowed to form an orchestra, performing the first concert of Beethoven 9th for local residents in 1918. It is now an annual tradition in Japan for the masterpiece, known as Daiku (Number 9), to be played at the end of the year by every single orchestra and choir, often numerous times in different concert halls around the country.

This historic musical connection between Europe and Asia coincidentally reflects the two countries shaping Wong’s career. In addition to his position as Chief Conductor of Nuremberg Symphony, Wong was recently appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the Japan Philharmonic.

What are the odds of a one-in-a-million maestro emerging from a relatively young country like Singapore, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with cultural giants from Germany and Japan, countries which statistically have so much more classical music talent and history of their own?

This is why the German embassy has given him its unwavering support. In the five years that the embassy has known him, he has grown from a young and promising musician into a full-fledged ambassador of culture with an internationally respected musical reputation. His contributions towards Singapore go far beyond global borders.

The symphony’s message of world peace, universal brotherhood and human kindness is even more vital in these pandemic times. No video call can ever fully replace the trust built in a physical meeting.

The same goes for culture too. In a live concert, there is a special significance for people to experience the same emotional catharsis in a shared physical space together. Without need for any words or explanations, the performance resonates with all those listening to it at that very moment. This is the power of music.

We want to continue supporting cultural exchanges between our countries beyond the pandemic. We hope to resume the highly successful “Beethoven im Garten” series, led by maestro Wong, in the near future. The series held at the Botanic Gardens is an initiative of the German Embassy in partnership with the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music and the Foundation for the Arts and Social Enterprise.

Aside from introducing high quality live classical music to local audiences, the project has also provided opportunities for Singaporean students to learn from top German professionals.

This year, the prestigious Dresdner Philharmonie from Saxony, Germany has pledged to support Wong’s educational work with the young musicians of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, spending a week in Singapore to perform side-by-side with him. This is akin to a young soccer intern playing a game in the Bundesliga – a truly precious and rare opportunity even for European music students.

Music is essential food for the soul. It enriches our lives, nourishes our minds and moves our spirit. Since it is the time to explore new year resolutions, perhaps the idea of a Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) for culture could prove to be essential to our societies in revitalising our human-to-human exchange across the world

Dr Norbert Riedel is the German Ambassador to Singapore. Michael Tay is the founding director of the Foundation for the Arts and Social Enterprise.

The performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony by Bamberg Symphony conducted by Kahchun Wong is available on The Straits Times YouTube and Facebook social media channels.

The article was published in The Straits Time on 11 January 2022.

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