5 Minutes with Conductor Dane Lam

29 Jan 2021
  • Meet the Artists
by Adelaide Symphony Orchestra
5 Minutes with Conductor Dane Lam

Describe the art of Conducting?
Conducting is all about relationships. From the relationship between the conductor and orchestra, to the relationship between one tempo or one pitch to another, and – most importantly – the relationship between the musicians and the audience.

I think the English word ‘conductor’ best sums up this relationship. The French, Italian, Spanish, German and Chinese words for the person with the stick at the front of an orchestra all connote directing forces or “being the boss”. Only the English word conveys the sense of literally conducting energy, between the composer, the performers and the listeners; not commanding but unlocking the musical possibilities from the musicians and singers we are fortunate to work with.

Name two things people may not know about you?

  1.  I’m a keen powerlifter. The beauty of music and art is that it’s so ineffable and intangible. With lifting, if the numbers on the bar are going up, you know you’re improving. I find that comforting in this artistic life.
  2.  I’m part of a big family. My mum is one of eleven kids, so I grew up with so many dear cousins who also became my best friends. I’m also one of seven kids.

Name your favourite piece of music and why you love it?
I am deeply in love with Mahler’s symphonies. If I had to pick one, it would be his Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth.) I know not everyone would classify Das Lied with the symphonies but I would argue its scope and inner coherence places it firmly in that pantheon. It deals with the big questions, especially around our own mortality, and combines ravishing Germanic expressionism, high romanticism, Chinese poetry and ideas, and the human voice in all its glory.

If you could ask one composer one question what would it be? 
I would love to sit down with Puccini and discuss what all his tempo indications mean in his operas. He’s fastidious in his specificity. And it’s not just a dry academic activity, the way the tempo relates to speech – in its urgency, laconism, amourousness  –  affects how we relate to the characters and their drama unfolding on stage.

Your dad is a professional chef; what meal do you always request him to cook when you’re together?
Dad, apart from being a high school maths teacher for decades, also has had several fantastic Chinese restaurants. He currently has a dumpling pop up food cart, “Dumpling Envy”. I loved his dumplings growing up but, whenever I’m home, it has to be his oyster sauce chicken. It’s a whole chicken in an oyster, soy, gingery, garlicky sauce served with a Chinese omelette and fresh steamed greens. I loved it and cook it myself for dinner parties. A bit of home cooking that guests seem to love.  

You have a vlog You Tube Channel where you upload videos about music? How did this start and how important do you think it is for orchestra’s to remain relevant in the digital age we are living in?
I had dabbled in vlogging before 2020 and when lockdown came around, I found myself with lots of creative energy and no outlet: what is a conductor without musicians? (Not much!) And so, I decided to give myself some focus for my energies while helping to give people musical reflections of emotions they might have felt during COVID – anger, desire, hope, humour – through some of the greatest music ever written. It was a great exercise in distilling the musical essence of a piece in only a few words that people from all backgrounds could connect with.

Many orchestras have undertaken similar digital engagement this year and I think it is vital, with or without lockdown. More and more of us live our lives digitally, and orchestras need to be on people’s radar. Still, none of this is a substitute for live performance. It’s one of the truly human activities we can undertake: gathering with a diverse range of people to experience the truly visceral, transformative wave of orchestral sound washing over us.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a young conductor?
I think the art and craft conducting is something whose arcane mysteries become easier to deal with the older one gets. I suppose the energy of youth and fully functioning bodies does help with conducting. But so much of what we do us about mind, leadership, and spirit that I do value everything that age and experience brings to what I do. I started this profession very young, so it is a relief now that when I go to rehearse an orchestra, I’m not the youngest person in the room anymore.

You’re performing in the ASO’s first Symphony Series Concert Joyous Reminiscence which features Elena Kats-Chernin’s Big Rhap, Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 4 – tell us briefly about each piece of music and how you hope they will be received?
I love Knoxville: Summer of 1915. It’s my favourite piece of American music. It’s a poem by James Agee that speaks to nostalgia, childhood and belonging; the seeming security of a bygone era. And it’s set to music so lovingly and evocatively by Samuel Barber. I know that Lauren Fagan will bring it to life superbly.

Tchaikovsky’s last three symphonies (including the Fourth that we’re performing) stand as huge monuments to the symphony as a form, that reached its zenith at the very beginning of the Twentieth Century. It’s a big journey, from the turgid call of fate in the brass; to childhood reminiscences in the folk-like slow movement to the unbridled energy of the finale.

It’s my great pleasure to perform another of Elena Kats Chernin’s pieces. Big Rhap is a fantastic piece, full of energy and life and Elena’s unmistakable and iconic gift for painting in technicolour with the orchestra’s colours.

How has conducting in a time of COVID affected you?
It’s certainly made me value what we do so much more. From March until I had the good fortune to return to Australia in August, my life was bereft of music, of live performance. And a truism that really did ring true in 2020 was that a conductor alone makes no sound, no music. We rely on the artistry of others, of musicians, to make the sounds. So now, no matter how trying or hectic musical life gets, I hold fast to the great privilege it is to perform with such great orchestras as the ASO and – most importantly – to real life, human audiences.

You’ll be joined on stage by Soprano Lauren Fagan, what do you know about her?
Lauren is great friend of mine. She’s one of Australia’s and –  indeed the world’s –  finest sopranos. We first worked together on Don Giovanni at Opera Holland Park in London and also on Strauss’s Four Last Songs with my Xi’an Symphony Orchestra. And besides all that, we’ve shared many a great meal and conversation. Adelaide is in for a treat with Lauren’s singing.

Where do you think we’ll find you in 5 years’ time?
I hope that in five years’ time you’ll find me contentedly and appreciatively making the best music I can with amazing musicians. I also hope I have a full wine fridge so that I can share it with my wife, Sofia, my family, and my friends. I have to say, I never expected 2020 to go this way. I had a full schedule of overseas engagements and a base in London. Now, I’m back home in Australia after more than a decade away and – surrounded by loved ones, Aussie beaches and forests, and our superb orchestras – I couldn’t be happier .

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