Under the baton of Doctor Sam
HOW many professional conductors can claim to have delivered 30 babies? Very few, admits Samuel Wong, the Hong Kong-born staff conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, who will be conducting the Hong Kong Philharmonic this weekend.
'Although, in a way, it is surprising, as medicine is very close to music,' said Wong, 33, who abandoned a career as an ophthalmic surgeon when leading conductor Zubin Mehta heard him conducting an amateur orchestra in the Rites of Spring - a difficult piece - and invited him to be assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic.
The short answer about why he gave up medicine - to which he had dedicated many years of hard study - to become a professional musician, is that Mehta invited him.
The long answer, about the years of soul-searching, restlessness and sleepless nights before his final decision, will be found in a book to be published in the autumn, explained Wong, a serious, articulate young Harvard graduate.
'Being from Hong Kong, and being raised in a certain kind of family, my view was quite limited - I could be a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant,' he said. 'Later when I went to Harvard the whole canopy of life was open. I realised there were other choices. I remember on my first day at Harvard [where he graduated in applied mathematics] the president of the college, Derek Bok, addressed us, and said don't let yourselves be confined in the narrow corridors of one profession. I was amazed. I suppose in one way he was responsible for my meddling in so many areas.' But does he regret the hours of late-night study at college, the exhausting years spent working as an intern in a hospital, all seemingly for nothing? 'No, not at all, in fact I think that it has been an important element in my feeling for music,' he said. 'Modern life has become unbearably comfortable, and emotions have been flattened. Births take place at home, and death happens behind closed doors. For a lot of people the worst catastrophe they have in a year is having their purse stolen.
'But in medicine you have the privilege of seeing protracted death, suffering, regeneration, and of course a great deal of courage in people with diseases. The substructure of great music is great emotion. It contains triumph and courage and human fragility. Perhaps my training has allowed me to understand this better.' But, Wong said, the parallels did not stop there: 'On one level the human body is bones and skin and muscles, on another it is haemoglobins and atoms, and on another it is the mind and the will to live. A doctor has to understand all of those levels. And for the conductor it is the same: you can see a symphony as a series of notes, or in terms of rhythms and harmony and colours, or as the overall spirit of the piece.' The public acts of being a surgeon, and being a conductor also have their parallels, he observed: one dresses in green and goes out into the lights of a theatre; the other dresses in a dinner suit and goes out into the lights of a concert hall.
'Both have rehearsed the actions, but what happens in the 'performance' also has to do with spontaneity and reaction to other influences,' he said. 'A surgeon has to react to the patient, while a conductor also has to react - to soloists 'who can be suddenly erratic, and play in a different way to the way we'd planned in advance, to the orchestra, to the mood of the audience'.' There was just one day, as he started one career, and ended the other, that the two professions actually overlapped. It was a day when he operated on three patients in the morning, as a warm-up for a concert with the New York Phil in the evening. 'It just happened once, but I remember it clearly, because it was in some way symbolic of what I was doing,' he said.
Wong's family moved to Toronto when he was nine years old. 'It was a galvanising experience for me,' he said. 'When you move to a foreign culture it's like a mirror on every aspect of your life.' Samuel Wong with the HK Phil, tomorrow in Sha Tin; Saturday in Tuen Mun. Tickets on 2734-9009