Lawyer turned conductor enjoys spectacular rise in music career

Ken Lam travels across US and occasionally back to Hong Kong to pick up baton

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 October, 2014, 5:30pm
UPDATED : Monday, 06 October, 2014, 5:30pm

It's every Chinese parent's worst nightmare. Ken Lam King-kei ditched his stable, successful job as a lawyer in Hong Kong to pursue a career as a classical music conductor in 2005. He'd already spent years at Cambridge for economics in the early 1990s, but fortunately for Lam's folks, it's worked out well.

"I think I was actually very lucky," Lam says. "As with most things, you just have to be in the right place at the right time."

In 2005, Lam had an office in the Jardine Building and after work he led the amateur choir, Hong Kong Voices, among other groups. This summer, he was appointed music director of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra in North Carolina. This title is on top of commitments he already has across three states in the US.

But he's still making time to return home to lead the Hong Kong Sinfonietta for a concert with pianist Frank Braley on November 21. Instead of a steady comfortable life, Lam now lives a hectic existence out of a suitcase.

"I like it," the 43-year-old says. "I feel equally at home everywhere. It's not like a nine-to-five job. I have a place in New Jersey, a place in Baltimore. I still have a home in Hong Kong and I'm now looking to get an apartment in Charleston."

The newest appointment by the Charleston Symphony Orchestra marks Lam's first time at the head of a major orchestra. "Charleston is nice - it's actually not unlike Hong Kong in many ways. In the South, everybody is connected and everyone knows each other, and the people are very nice and hospitable."

Lam's ascent to an orchestral music director's post has been nothing short of spectacular. For a Hong Kong musician, it's unprecedented. "I don't tend to think of next steps; I just try to do good work and I think things will fall into place. I just want to make sure that every place I go I leave it a little better."

Since embarking on a two-year conducting programme at the Peabody Institute, in Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, in 2005, Lam has amassed an impressive résumé.

Having studied under Swiss-American maestro Gustav Meier at the Peabody, Lam earned practical experience at the Aspen Music Festival's American Academy of Conducting. Next he was accepted into the National Conducting Institute, a vital stop for any aspiring baton leader.

Lam did two years with the great Leonard Slatkin. As part of the programme, grads are invited to conduct the National Symphony Orchestra and, in 2008, Lam made his US professional debut at the Kennedy Centre as one of four conductors selected by Slatkin.

From that experience, he became assistant conductor at the Cincinnati Symphony. Three years on, Lam was recommended for the Brevard Music Centre, a summer festival in North Carolina, where he is now promoted to resident conductor. At the same time, he applied to be orchestra director at the Montclair State University in New Jersey.

Working with one set of students, Lam figured he had enough time to also handle another youth orchestra in Maryland as well. With his experience in business development, he convinced the Baltimore Symphony to absorb his small group.

Now it is known as the Baltimore Symphony Youth Orchestra - and he even got a second position as the education conductor of the main Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Lam has never forgotten his roots. "The Sinfonietta has always been great," he says. "Yip Wing-sie has been watching over me for a long time. I've known her since I played freelance [as a violinist] in the Sinfonietta. I played quite a few concerts with them when I was still a lawyer and even went to France once with them.

"Wing-sie was kind enough to always give opportunities to artists and she has done a lot to help people. She played a really crucial role in the development of many young artists, myself included. For that, I am forever grateful. Now, whenever they ask me, I come."

I also enjoy new music. With living composers there is more than just a score
Ken Lam

Lam's repertoire has grown beyond just orchestral and choral works. He's dabbling in operas. At Brevard, he directed productions of the Janiec Opera Company then served as assistant conductor at the Cincinnati Opera, Baltimore Lyric Opera and at the Castleton Festival (under Lorin Maazel).

With his Chinese language skill, Lam was also an obvious choice to help conduct filmmaker Atom Egoyan's innovative 2013 stage production of Guo Wenjing's opera Feng Yi Ting.

"He did a spectacular job," Lam says of Egoyan. "I wouldn't say [opera] requires a different skill set but you need to know about voices, the language of the opera, how to conduct with people on a stage, and how to help people who are actors with no musical training.

"In terms of repertoire, I do love the classics. I love Bruckner, Bach, but I also enjoy new music. With living composers there is more than just a score. You get a person you can form a relationship with, and even play a part in their development.

"With the Sinfonietta concert, I will be doing a new piece by [Hong Kong composer] Daniel Lo Ting-cheung. They showed me a draft, I showed them a few things in terms of ideas and it's a fun and interesting piece."

While Lam may occasionally be back for visits and guest conducting, his career is essentially in America now. But he foresees a day when local musicians won't have to look elsewhere to pursue their dream.

"I don't think you have to go abroad but going abroad does open one's exposure to things and gives one more perspective and maturity, both musically and personally. And classical music's roots are overseas in the West," Lam says.

"But if you look at conservatories around the world now, many of the students are Asian. More and more you are also seeing professors at these places being Asian, too.

"China in the past decade had many great talents who studied overseas and never returned because the opportunities weren't there. China now has the foresight to start creating opportunities for these artists to return; positions for teaching, masterclasses, and performing," he says.

"I think I am still at the stage where I am developing my art and talent, and my ability to build an orchestra. Maybe at some point, there will be an opportunity for me to return with a position I can't refuse."

Lam hopes Hong Kong will become a hub for classical music. "Hong Kong might not need to import musical talent in the future. But you do want to encourage students to go out and be more experienced.

"The issue is the same everywhere. If you're American and you want to make it big, you go to Europe. But once you make it, you can go anywhere. Like Lang Lang, he's a star everywhere.

"I don't know if I can ever be the Lang Lang of conducting but I have to try. With conducting, I have time because you get better with age."

Frank Braley Plays Mozart with Ken Lam conducting the Hong Kong Sinfonietta, Nov 21, City Hall Concert Hall, Central. HK$320, HK$220 and HK$140 Urbtix.Tel: 2111 5999