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‘There are some nerves but you hope there’s chemistry’

Music

Musician and conductor Jason Lai, who will make his debut with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra at its cross-cultural Chinese New Year concert this month, says performing with a new group of musicians is a lot like going on a first date.

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Lai is considered a leading light in a new generation of Asian conductors; he is associate conductor with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, and has also presented and appeared on television programs in Singapore and the UK, where he was a judge on BBC talent show Classical Star.

He will be both conductor and presenter of the Chinese New Year concert at the Festival Theatre on February 15, which alongside the ASO will feature didgeridoo virtuoso William Barton, piano player Warren Lee, Chinese folk soprano Yafen, drummers from the Shanghai Empireast Culture Group, and musicians from the School of Chinese Music & Arts.

In this Q&A, Lai talks about everything from the upcoming performance and Chinese New Year traditions, to a video he produced about concert etiquette, singing in the shower, playing cello on a cruise ship, and his go-to karaoke number.

How do you feel about being described as being a leading light in a new generation of Asian conductors?

I feel honoured. There seems to be a whole new generation now of Asian conductors who are doing great things; they are winning competitors and being appointed to good orchestras. I also teach conducting at the Yong Siew Conservatory in Singapore and enjoy helping train the conductors of the future.

How do you normally spend Chinese New Year?

Usually with family and friends and, as you can imagine, there’s a lot of eating! There are also lots of visits to each other’s houses, always with a gift of tangerines, which signify wealth, or oranges, which are a popular symbol of good luck.

What are you most looking forward to about performing with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra?

I’ve never been to Australia before, so I’m very much looking forward to visiting the country and working with the ASO. It’s always exciting to debut with an orchestra. It’s like going on a first date – there are some nerves but you hope there’s chemistry and the chance of a second date!

The Chinese New Year Concert is a mix of masterworks and traditional Chinese favourites, including “Rooster Fanfare” (Sean O’Boyle), “The Yellow River Piano Concerto” (Xian Xinghai), selections from The Nutcracker (Tchaikovsky), “Train Toccata” (Liu Yuan) and “Boléro” (Ravel). Which pieces from the program are you most looking forward to?

I’ve never conducted the “Yellow River Concerto”, so I’m looking forward to that as it’s a Chinese classic.

Why did you produce a short video about concert etiquette? 

I was taking part in a TV series for a channel in Singapore and alongside the main series they wanted to shoot some webisodes, so I thought of writing a script on concert etiquette. A lot of people have written to me to tell me that the video has helped them. Anything that helps gets audiences into the concert hall is great! 

Why do you think orchestra etiquette is so important?

I just thought it would be fun to film, as I’m asked these questions about etiquette all the time, but the most important thing is to just actually go to a concert and enjoy it.

What was the first recording you ever bought?

It was Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, performed by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, conducted by Sir Neville Marriner.

What is your musical guilty pleasure?

I like listening to movie soundtracks. John Williams always seems to nail it – he’s one of my favourites.

If you found yourself with six months free to learn a new instrument, what would it be?

I’d like to learn the horn, as it’s such a noble instrument. It’s very much like the cello, which I used to play, but I know the life of a hornist is always on the edge; it’s such a difficult instrument to play, so not sure what I could learn in just six months.

What single thing would improve the format of the classical concert?

Communicating with an audience – when the conductor says a few words about the music or tells a story or anecdote, audiences love it!

What is the most unusual place you’ve performed in?

Back in the days when I was a cellist, I did a summer job on a cruise ship playing string quartets for passengers. I remember the terrible travel sickness I got trying to play Mozart abroad a listing ship – it really wasn’t pleasant.

What has been your most memorable live music experience both as an audience member and as an artist?

I was lucky enough to be in a rehearsal with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra under the great Italian conductor Claudio Abbado. I watched with awe as the maestro moved his magical hands and listened to the music unfold. As an artist, it was conducting in a packed Royal Albert Hall for a concert in the BBC Proms season.

Which non-classical musician would you like to work with?

I love Adele’s voice and her songs. I wonder what it would be like to be working with her on a song cycle or piece for a pop singer and orchestra?

What do you sing in the shower?

My voice breaks windows so I don’t sing…

What’s your karaoke go-to number?

“My Way”, though frankly I’m no Sinatra…

The Chinese New Year Concert will be at the Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, on February 18. It is being presented by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, in association with the Adelaide Festival Centre.

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