IF MUSICIANS form the backbone of an orchestra, who keeps them from falling apart?
Few people would say it is the conductor. And even fewer may realise that the arm-waving professional is just as consumed by notes and scores as the instrumentalists are, if not more.
Mr Darrell Ang, young associate conductor with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO), literally devotes every second of his time and every ounce of his energy to nothing but perfecting his skills.
It is not surprising that he sees his profession not as a job, but “a calling, a mission, a must”.
He says: “You don’t choose to become a musician. Music chooses you. It’s not a job and perhaps that’s why I enjoy it.
“I’ve always known it was what I wanted to do and born to do. I knew I couldn’t live without making music and I wanted to re-create the masterpieces of the great composers in the orchestral medium.”
The key turning point
Ironically, Mr Ang — who played the violin, piano and bassoon in his early days of training — found playing musical instruments a solitary and, sometimes, an unpleasant activity.
But when he learnt that he could shape sounds at will with the help of a baton, he was hooked.
The 31-year-old Singaporean graduated with a master’s degree in symphonic and orchestral conducting from the prestigious St Petersburg State Conservatory in Russia, whose alumni include outstanding musicians and composers like Peter Tchaikovsky.
He was also a fellow of Yale University, where he obtained a master’s degree in music at the end of a two-year residence.
His professional achievements are no less impressive. In three consecutive years, he bagged the top awards at acclaimed competitions: the 9th Antonio Pedrotti International Competition for Conductors (2006), the 50th Besançon International Young Conductor’s Competition (2007) and the Arturo Toscanini Competition (2008).
He is currently a guest conductor of opera companies and top international orchestras such as the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra.
Scores and encore
Mr Ang’s conducting assignments around the world keep him away from his family and loved ones very often.
“I do not live in Singapore,” he says. “I have a studio apartment in Berlin, Germany, but I’m also rarely there. Such is the nature of my work.”
As if that is not enough, he works round the clock, studying scores even on trains and buses or when he is waiting for his next appointment.
When time allows, he performs the basics of human existence — eat, drink and sleep — but only to refuel for work.
Holidays? He never takes them.
With such a gruelling schedule and unrelenting self-discipline, it is no surprise that Mr Ang sums up eloquently what he thinks is required of a world-class conductor:
“A good conductor should be technically highly skilled, musically irreproachable and psychologically infallible. He also has to possess undeniable leadership qualities.”
Anyone who wants to become a conductor should have solid training in playing an instrument, score-reading, composition and experience with orchestras, to say the least.
“One should also have an adequate amount of life experience.”
Indeed, rich and deep emotions rule a good part of his pursuit of being a consummate conductor.
Depression surrounds him when he feels he has not done well. Yet, even when he is praised, satisfaction or elation eludes him because he knows he can always do better.
Behind the scenes
His fierce devotion to his passion means one of his pet peeves is the layman’s misconception of the role of a conductor.
He will have you know that behind the person who leads the musical ensemble with a flourish are hours of score-study and preparation. This includes research on the work at hand and its composer.
He says: “The most annoying things are when people think that conductors do nothing but wave their arms — implying that it is something anyone and everyone can do — and that the musicians in the orchestra do not even watch them.”
He clarifies: “Orchestral musicians ‘see’ conductors from the corners of their eyes and they do look up occasionally.”
But the truth about a conductor’s effect on an orchestra is that he effectively transfers his energies on it. It really is more like a process of osmosis.
“The outcome of a musical performance almost entirely depends on him — even when it does not appear immediately so.”