The Band World

A Class of His Own – Lien Boon Hua

Currently based in Rochester, New York, Lien Boon Hua is the Music Director of the award-winning Orchestra Collective, widely regarded as one of the finest wind ensembles in Singapore.

The Band Post speaks to Boon Hua, who is currently pursuing his doctoral degree in orchestral conducting at the Eastman School of Music and also establishing a career as a dynamic and versatile young conductor from Singapore.

TBP: You have had formal studies on the Trombone at Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music before your stints in US in for your Masters in Conducting and then Doctorate in Orchestral Conducting. Did you feel like it was a change from instrument performance to conducting, or was it a stepping stone to what you are doing right now?

It was certainly both, as even though conducting and trombone are absolutely different worlds, they are essentially interconnected and each step I took in my journey readily propelled me towards the next. For example, when I was pursuing trombone studies at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, I actively sought out opportunities to perform chamber music because I loved the freedom and experience of making music together with like-minded friends and colleagues, and everyone brought something special to the table.

Little did I know that this experience taught me many lessons about being a conductor that I still use today such as how to rehearse tactfully and respectfully, and to be flexible as well as open to new ideas.

On the flip side, when I entered the University of Cincinnati College-Conservarory of Music for my master’s degree in wind conducting, I had barely conducted before that and my conducting repertoire was an embarrassing handful of works I studied for the auditions. In my two years there I was determined to expand my horizons and learnt not only wind ensemble works, but also orchestral, opera and new music repertoire.

When I started conducting orchestras I realized quickly that it required a slightly different conducting approach from what I was used to, mainly because of the tendencies of the string family. Hence in this case, even though technically the principles of conducting should be the same between an orchestra and a wind ensemble, in reality it was a change of field for myself when I took up orchestral conducting at the Eastman School of Music for my doctorate.

TBP: How do you feel about the various conducting opportunities with some highly regarded groups such as the Moscow Philharmonic, the OSSIA New Music Ensemble at the Eastman School of Music and the invitation to work with Marin Alsop at the prestigious Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music? Did you feel that these platforms have helped shape your career?

I feel extremely lucky to have the opportunities to work with all these groups as well as my wonderful ensemble Orchestra Collective. It is a tremendous privilege and responsibility to lead all these talented musicians and there is always both ups and downs, excitement and anxiety.

All these platforms have taught me much about various aspects of being a conductor, and with each instance the experience I gained help me develop into a better musician and a stronger person. It is hard to say if it shaped my career as I’m merely taking baby steps in my career, but I’m certain many of these lessons I’d learnt from these opportunities will be close to my heart.

And I’m very serious about being “lucky” – of course you have to be prepared when Lady Luck smiles at you and gives you a shot, but what I’m saying is that there are so many talented musicians out there who are waiting for their big break, and I am fortunate to be at the right place and right time for these opportunities I have.

TBP: What would you describe your conducting style as? Were there any influences that motivated you? Or conducting greats that you admire?

Well, that you would have to ask the players rather than myself. I would like to think that my conducting style is free and expressive, but more importantly helpful and communicative to the musicians. My teacher is a huge inspiration to me and I have tried to assimilate his style into my conducting. That said, every time I watch my own conducting video I am never fully happy with how it is, and I’m constantly experimenting with how I can project the music better.

(Watch Boon Hua’s conducting of “Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune” with the Eastman Graduate Chamber Orchestra)

There are many conducting greats that I admire, and in fact thanks to YouTube, the list is practically endless! In one night you can practically watch legends like Leonard Bernstein, Herbert von Karajan, Carlos Kleiber, Claudio Abbado, Seiji Ozawa… and the list goes on. Every single of these greats have so much to offer, and I am slowly getting better at discerning the little things they do to affect the orchestra, instead of merely admiring how they look.

Recently, I have been listening to a lot of the great German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, and it is incredible how skillfully he paces the tempo to be spot-on for the music of the moment. I recall listening to recordings and reading articles about Furtwängler when I was younger, and many described his tempo as “organic” – he could start at one spot in a certain tempo but eventually flowed into a new tempo in another section that was not indicated in the score. I never understood then how he could make the music sound so alive and irresistible, and after so many years later I finally could better appreciate what an amazing musician he was.

TBP: What would be your plans in the next five years? Do you have a dream?

In the next five years I hope to accumulate as much professional conducting experience as possible, and eventually land up either with an academic position in an institution or an assistant conductor position in a professional orchestra.

I believe in either setting I am able to experience or promote music making at a high level, and share what music means to me to as many people as I can. That said, this career is almost impossible to predict, and I’m keeping my options open to where possibilities might lead me. I also plan to continually work on a couple of projects in Singapore each year, and give back to the community back home.

As for the question if I have a dream – I might just have too many of them! There are many things I want to achieve, but I am also aware that the best thing I can do is to keep doing what I’m doing and put out my best work wherever I go. I was never too much of a dreamer previously, but this past few years I have pushed myself to take more risks and it is paying off. I know this is a cliché but the sky is the limit, and we should never shortchange our talents.

Dream big and don’t be afraid to make it happen. When I made the switch to be a conductor, who would have imagined that one day I would be invited to audition for Bernard Haitink at the prestigious Lucerne Festival?

I’m happy that I have achieved these little successes, and they inspire me to dream even bigger.

(cover photo credit: John Schlia Photography)

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