Life came full circle for Penang-born 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 man 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 occurrences 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.