Lam has had a fruitful career as a conductor, having studied at New York’s Juilliard School and later landing the role of principal conductor of China’s Xi’an Symphony Orchestra.
He will return to the Festival Theatre on February 10 to lead the orchestra through its second Chinese New Year concert, which will feature Australian-Chinese cellist Li-Wei Qin playing Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations and emerging violinist Harmonnia Junus playing the Butterfly Lovers Concerto by He Zhanhao and Chen Gang.
Below, Lam discusses his broader career, as well as sharing his views on why the Australian music industry should deepen its ties with China.
As a Chinese-Australian, why do you think it’s important to have a Chinese New Year concert?
The Chinese diaspora makes up a large proportion of the modern Australian community and plays such an important role. Even in my lifetime I’ve seen Chinese traditions and practice become more widespread in Australia to the point where it now feels as though the Chinese-Australian experience is an essential colour in our multicultural palette. The programme we’ve planned for the ASO Chinese New Year concert reflects this: cultures bouncing off, reflecting and complimenting each other. People from all facets of the Adelaide community can come to enjoy this celebration.
How would you describe cellist Li-Wei Qin as a performer?
Li-Wei is a viscerally exciting performer. We finally worked together earlier this year in Xi’an on the Dvorak concerto. We didn’t have a piano rehearsal beforehand and just found each other in a play-through. It was a great feeling to have a collaborator with whom I was so “in sync” and whose ideas aligned with mine and with the composer’s. Adelaide audiences are in for a treat.
What was your biggest obstacle as a young conductor and how did you overcome it?
I think the old chestnut of needing to conduct an orchestra for experience but not having the experience to conduct an orchestra rings true. When you’re starting out you need to rely on the goodwill of mates, putting together a scratch orchestra, doing masterclasses with orchestras and waiting for managers to take a chance on you and hire you to do concerts. I was lucky to study conducting at Juilliard where we had our own “lab orchestra” every week for two years between just three conductors. Just like a pianist practices on a piano, we had an orchestra to practice on. That’s important – learning to make music with real live musicians – and shaping a phrase with this living, breathing organism. You can’t get that conducting pianos or recordings.
What makes Chinese New Year so special?
It’s a time of renewal, setting new intentions and a good occasion for the Chinese side of my family to have a reunion.
What kind of collaborative projects would you like to see China and Australia working on in the future?
We share a geographic region and Chinese culture is such an intrinsic part of Australia. I’d love to see more collaborations like the one between the ASO and Shandong Symphony. I also think we can collaborate on more opera creation – perhaps a new work that speaks to our shared place in Asia…
2019 is the year of the pig, what is your Chinese zodiac? How synonymous is it with your personality?
I’m a Rat. Being born in January, for most of my life I thought I was an Ox, but seeing as January falls before Lunar New Year I am actually a Rat. Rats are thoughtful, intelligent and consider many things. I hope I do that!
Adelaide Symphony Orchestra will perform their Chinese New Year Concert at the Festival Theatre on February 10.