Sam Wong's goal is to make the symphony's repertoire accessible to all.
Photo by Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin

The right choice

By Tim Ryan

SAM Wong is grimacing as he hops from the passenger seat of a car parked illegally outside the Hawaii Theatre.

He's late but it isn't the car that concerns him. It's that he's wearing a dark suit and a white dress shirt. "I really wanted to wear an aloha shirt; I feel ridiculous in this, here of all places," says Wong, who is the Honolulu Symphony's new music director.

But the suit is necessary: the 33-year-old Wong is scheduled to meet with state legislators in an hour and has been told that they will be wearing formal business attire so he should, too, for that all important first impression. At least he is carrying, not wearing, his tie.

Wong officially was named the symphony's music director today in what chair Lynne Johnson said was an "overwhelming choice of the symphony board, musicians and audience."

Wong's three-year contract calls for him to spend 10, 11 and 12 weeks, respectively, conducting in Hawaii. Wong will make $100,000 a year. Hae-Young, Wong's wife and a violinist in the New York Philharmonic where he is currently assistant conductor, accompanied him here.

Born in Hong Kong and a Canadian citizen, Wong studied music at Harvard. He has directed orchestras throughout the world, including Montreal, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, New York, Brussels, Mexico City and Israel. He's had 15 world premieres at Carnegie Hall.

The first impression of Wong is his youth, exuberance, pragmatism and openness.

"Oh, hi," he says, "Please call me Sam."

Yet he is one who carefully chooses his words and thoughts. He apologizes when he uses an adjective more than once, for giving a lengthy answer to a simple question, for meandering, always insisting on responding again in a more orderly fashion.

This is an excellent time for rebuilding,
for people to put their heads and hearts and hands together.
The symphony has gone through a lot of divisiveness and strife
... but that's behind us.

Sam Wong
Musical director
Honolulu Symphony

There is no mistaking that Wong is passionate about music, his career path and his goal of making the symphony's repertoire accessible to all. And he is emphatic about his love for the symphony musicians, calling them "a damn good orchestra."

The 62-member symphony has been without a full-time conductor since the 1993-94 season when Donald Johanos retired and labor problems canceled all concerts. It now has a multiyear collective bargaining agreement with orchestra musicians.

"There is no better time for me to come to Honolulu," says Wong, who has conducted the symphony three times in recent years. "This is an excellent time for rebuilding, for people to put their heads and hearts and hands together.

"The symphony has gone through a lot of divisiveness and strife ... but that's behind us. There may be some lingering disagreements with some musicians, but musicians are by nature passionate, expressive, complaining people. That's just the nature of the beast and thank God for it.

"You have to show some fire and cantankerous behavior and even some coarse language at times. That's part of the art, the passion, the music."

Wong believes there now are more "seeds for success" for the symphony than ever before, citing a stable contract for musicians, a new consolidated board "hungry for success," a modest, though star-filled upcoming season, principal musicians returning to the symphony and a solid contract for him as music director.

""The orchestra is poised artistically, hungry to make the best music ever," he said.

"I am a very practical man. I believe in starting conservatively, working within your means then building on that base. This board is not reckless.

"The first year we will do a lot of pieces that people will love. We want to bring in very high-level guest artists playing some popular pieces and also a smattering of Hawaii pieces. We want to be very dynamic with living composers."

Mention classical music's elitist image and Wong nearly foams at the mouth.

"Classical music has been given the wrong image. I know some of Beethoven's (pieces) rock as good as any music out there, and Madonna hasn't cornered the market on lust and avarice compared to many operas."

Wong promises to take his message to the people personally, in schools and colleges, even talking to symphony audiences during performances.

"I am a very accessible, outreaching kind of guy. I want our music to appeal to everyone, to let people know that symphonic music, be it jazz or rock or guitar, all contains the universal need to communicate at a deeper level from heart to heart, brain to brain. Music-making brings us together and is not the domain of just a few ...."

Wong has a music degree from the Toronto Conservatory of Music and a medical degree in ophthalmology and internal medicine from Harvard University.

He also has co-authored several scientific and clinical papers and will have his first hardcover book - still untitled - with observations and reflections on the fields of music and medicine published next year.

His interest in medicine was fostered by family tradition - his brother is a doctor.

"I've always been interested in science and mathematics, which I think are related to music. Medicine for me was less a vocation or a specialty than an extension of my liberal arts education. I was interested in societies and languages and cultures. I was interested in how we were put together on every level from bones to molecules to genes. It was more of an investigation to what mankind is rather than studying to be a surgeon."

How did Wong's parents feel about their son's switch from surgery to symphony?

"My father said education is never, ever wasted. And I believe that our mission in life is to figure out why we were put on this Earth, to try many things. I've always had a very pantheistic view of life, a never ending investigation into what makes us human and who we are. I'm still searching."

Mel Torme on list of
guest performers

Mel Torme will perform with the Honolulu Symphony June 6 at the refurbished Hawaii Theatre, symphony officials announced today.

Sam Wong will make his official debut as the symphony's new musical director at a special bonus concert at 7:30 p.m. June 27 at the Blaisdell Concert Hall. Lisa Nakamichi also will appear as soloist.

Spring/summer series, Blaisdell Concert Hall

Spring/summer pops series, Hawaii Theatre
Classical Hits series, Hawaii Theatre
Subscription series, Blaisdell Concert Hall
1996-97 Pops series, Blaisdell Concert Hall
Classical Hits, Hawaii Theatre
For ticket and subscription information, call the symphony at 524-0815 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. and 545-5601 from 5 to 9 p.m. Mondays through Fridays.

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