Man for all sea­sons

Vet­eran clas­si­cal con­duc­tor Tham Meng Kong re­ceives a melodic home­com­ing in Pe­nang.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - People - By JEREMY TAN star2@thes­tar.com.my

LIFE came full circle for Pe­nang­born con­duc­tor Tham Meng Kong when he re­turned re­cently to his alma mater, Chung Ling High School, to share pearls of wis­dom with a new gen­er­a­tion of bud­ding mu­si­cians.

It seemed not so long ago that the 83-year-old was in their shoes, play­ing mu­sic with like-minded school­mates af­ter study hours sim­ply for the love of melody, though things were rather dif­fer­ent back then.

“There weren’t many of us into mu­sic, but we man­aged to get to­gether and form an orches­tra un­der the tute­lage of my men­tor Chai Pak Long,” re­calls Tham, who has lived in Chicago, United States, for the past five decades.

He came back to Pe­nang for the school’s re­cent cen­te­nary cel­e­bra­tions, and was im­pressed by the large num­ber of mu­si­cians there now, as well as their en­ergy and en­thu­si­asm.

He praised their stan­dard of mu­sic mak­ing un­der the guid­ance of mu­sic di­rec­tor Datuk Woon Wen Kin, who is also the found­ing pres­i­dent and di­rec­tor of the Pe­nang Sym­phony Orches­tra.

“Tal­ent is im­por­tant, but so are hard work and dis­ci­pline. Whether or not they go on to be­come mu­si­cians, the ex­pe­ri­ence will give them price­less mem­o­ries and serve them well in later life.”

Re­vis­it­ing the school and strolling down its hal­lowed cor­ri­dors brought back many fond mem­o­ries for Tham, who grew up in Love Lane be­fore his fam­ily re­lo­cated to Air Itam fol­low­ing WWII.

Fun­nily enough, he had never planned to be­come a pro­fes­sional mu­si­cian.

Rather, it was a series of chance oc­curences and op­por­tu­ni­ties that led him on to a won­der­ful and ful­fill­ing ca­reer.

“My love af­fair with mu­sic be­gan one sunny af­ter­noon when I went swim­ming at a friend’s house af­ter school, and heard (Robert) Schu­mann’s Traumerei for the first time.

“I was in­stantly spell­bound. It started my life­long pur­suit of Western clas­si­cal mu­sic, which was quite a cul­tural con­trast with my Chi­nese up­bring­ing,” he says.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from Chung Ling in 1954, he went on to study mu­sic at the Na­tional Nor­mal Univer­sity in Tai­wan, where he would meet another men­tor, Thor John­son, a for­mer con­duc­tor of the Cincin­nati Sym­phony Orches­tra.

At John­son’s rec­om­men­da­tion, Tham was awarded a full schol­ar­ship to study mu­sic at the North­west­ern Univer­sity where he earned his BA in Vi­o­lin Per­for­mance and MA in Mu­si­col­ogy.

“When I got there, I saw so many young and tal­ented mu­si­cians. There were hun­dreds. So to ad­vance, you needed to work very hard to be on par or bet­ter than the rest,” says Thum.

He be­came as­sis­tant con­duc­tor of the Civic Orches­tra, the train­ing en­sem­ble for the Chicago Sym­phony in 1976, and also mu­sic di­rec­tor for the Youth Sym­phony of DuPage in 1977.

Tham served in the lat­ter po­si­tion for 39 years be­fore re­tir­ing last year, and con­sid­ers it an hon­our and priv­i­lege to have groomed or crossed paths with so many ac­com­plished mu­si­cians from around the world, over the years.

A high­light was con­duct­ing a Mu­si­cal Gala by the Chung Ling Cen­ten­nial Orches­tra at the Vic­to­ria Con­cert Hall in Sin­ga­pore just last month, which was put to­gether by for­mer school­mate Tan Yeow Chou.

It fea­tured pi­anist Lee Kum Sing, who played a Beethoven piece, just like what he and Tham used to do over 60 years ago.

“It wasn’t only a home­com­ing, but go­ing back to where we all started. I couldn’t think of any­thing more fit­ting.

“I have so many rel­a­tives in Pe­nang, Kuala Lumpur and Sin­ga­pore, and most have never seen me con­duct. So it was an op­por­tu­nity to visit fam­ily and re­con­nect.

“And when­ever I’m back, I must have my Hokkien mee. But that’s just the start of a long list that also in­cludes laksa, char koay teow, popiah and duri­ans,” says Tham of his five-week trip.

He has sound ad­vice for those who wish to pur­sue mu­sic – to love what they do, un­der­stand mu­sic, and be able to face chal­lenges, while putting in hard work.

“Don’t ex­pect to be­come a star or mil­lion­aire, but sim­ply pur­sue your love and pas­sion. That is a best re­ward. If you be­come suc­cess­ful and earn big bucks, think of it as a bonus,” he quips.

In fact, when Tham first started out as a con­duc­tor, his own mother was not sure what he did for liv­ing. So one day, he in­vited her to a show in Sin­ga­pore.

“Af­ter the con­cert, she jok­ingly said, I never knew you can make a liv­ing by wav­ing a chop­stick around,” he quipped.

Tham, who mar­ried an Amer­i­can and has two sons aged 35 and 28, is also pleased to see the de­vel­op­ment – both eco­nom­i­cally and cul­tur­ally – that Pe­nang and Malaysia has ex­pe­ri­enced in re­cent years.

He called on au­di­ences, busi­nesses and cor­po­ra­tions to con­tinue sup­port­ing the arts, be­cause that is the essence of a na­tion’s cul­ture. Cul­ti­vat­ing ap­pre­ci­a­tion takes time, and where mu­sic is con­cerned, says Tham, con­certs are a key part of the process.

“As per­form­ers, we are used to get­ting on stage and play­ing. But it’s the peo­ple be­hind the scenes that are the true un­sung he­roes – from par­ents and fam­ily mem­bers, to spon­sors.

“Be­cause it is they who give us the op­por­tu­nity to per­form and cre­ate,” says Tham, who also an­nounced that he would re­turn to Pe­nang in 2018 to con­duct a con­cert.

— Photos: ZAINUDIN AHAD/The Star

Tham con­duct­ing Pe­nang’s Chung Ling High School Orches­tra in a prac­tice ses­sion dur­ing a re­cent visit to his alma mater.

Tham (left) at his favourite spot in Chung Ling High School, with his close friend and fel­low mu­sic mae­stro Woon.

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