Taking 5 with Dane Lam

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Taking 5 with Dane Lam

He’s conducted our very own Queensland Symphony Orchestra and travels the world working with some of the biggest orchestras in the business. We sat down with the incredibly talented Dane Lam, Principal Conductor and Artistic Director of China’s Xi’an Symphony Orchestra, to talk about growing up in Brisbane, the hardest concert he’s ever conducted, and his dad’s incredible cooking.

You grew up in Brisbane attending Queensland Symphony Orchestra concerts – what’s the first one you ever remember seeing?

My mum is a real balletomane and so I have vivid memories of going to watch Swan Lake when I was about five or six-years-old. I suppose that would have been the Queensland Philharmonic back in those days. I remember being inundated by Tchaikovsky’s tunes – he knew how to write them! According to my Mum, though, I was going to QSO Cushion Concerts well before the age of six. I do have a vague memory of a grumpy-sounding bassoon in Peter and the Wolf.

How does conducting make you feel? What’s it like standing up in front of an entire orchestra and leading them through a concert?

When all the variables align, when there’s this crackling, almost palpable energy whizzing between orchestra and audience, that’s when conducting gives me a feeling like nothing else in the world. At its most basic conducting is all about moving energy around. It sounds esoteric, but it’s not really. We all bring energy to whatever we do. Composers invest tremendous energy into their music and musicians into their playing. Standing in front of so many excellent musicians harnessing the energy in the room and helping them to play their hearts out is a great privilege.

As a conductor you travel around the world for concerts. Does each orchestra you work with have a vastly different style?

It’s true that each orchestra has a certain style of playing, and not only along lines of nationality. Even in Australia each orchestra has its own personality and sound. Still, much of what we do as conductors is judge each orchestra’s response to the beat, how they shape a phrase, what kind of sound comes naturally and then work out a way to bring it nearer the vision of what we interpret the music to be, according to the composer’s necessarily arbitrary instructions (I mean, how fast is fast? How loud is loud? What exactly did an ‘easy walking pace’ mean to Brahms?)

I’ve found that many of the differences between orchestras are most evident in the rehearsal process. Generally, orchestras with a lot of rehearsal time (usually the ones with a hefty state subsidy) like to take their time to get into a piece, to slowly and thoroughly ‘make friends with the notes’. I’ve learned not to be too demanding or presumptuous early on with these orchestras, as the development from the first rehearsal to the concert is vast.

Conversely, in countries in which rehearsal time is at a premium (sparsely-funded, busy orchestras), the level of sight-reading at the first rehearsal is so good that you could almost make a commercial recording of it. Then you’ve got to be on the ball and ration your comments so that they help not hinder. That’s the beauty of a communicative physical technique – it saves time because you gesture more and speak less. Still, even with these crack sight-reading orchestras, I’ve always said, ‘just because you can perform Mahler 9 on one day of rehearsals doesn’t mean you should’. There’s something to be said for ‘sitting’ with a piece for a while and letting it sink in. This is one of the great joys of the opera rehearsal process, when we spend many weeks with the same piece, getting into all its nooks and crannies.

Tell us your favourite concert, hardest concert and most dramatic concert that you’ve conducted so far?

My favourite concert was my Opera Australia debut a couple of years ago with Puccini’s La boheme. It was in the Sydney Opera House, such a venerable Aussie landmark that’s imbued with so much meaning for us Aussie artists. Walking up the Circular Quay concourse for my first night was a special feeling. I was taking over a run of the show and so didn’t get ANY rehearsal with the orchestra; we just met each other in the pit that first night. I’d also never conducted Boheme before (though I’d studied it to within an inch of its life!). From the first downbeat (one of the trickier pieces to start, right up there with Beethoven 5), the energy crackled and I knew it was going to be a memorable performance.

The hardest concert I’ve had to conduct was on the day of my grandmother’s funeral in Xi’an, China with my orchestra, the Xi’an Symphony Orchestra. My grandma was a huge influence in my life, from her love of piano, her gregarious and always-giving nature, and her quiet faith. It was hard not being able to be back in Brisbane to be with my family to say farewell. I dedicated that performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony to her, though, and the slow movement has never had greater poignancy.

I don’t need to look very far afield for my most dramatic concert. It was just last year at QPAC when I jumped in with an hour’s notice to substitute for an indisposed Alondra de la Parra at a QSO concert. The night before I’d conducted a show of Opera Queensland’s Orpheus and that day had driven up to Noosa very early to register for the triathlon only to drive back to Brisbane in time to attend the QSO concert as an audience member. I’d just finished eating dinner when the phone rang and Tim Matthies, QSO’s Director of Artistic Planning, asked how far away I was. Luckily I was already familiar with the repertoire, having conducted it with several other orchestras, so the drama and adrenaline of the evening led to an exhilarating night of music-making with an orchestra I had known since I was a child.

Your dad’s a chef - do you have a favourite meal you always ask him to cook? Do you think he would consider creating a classical music inspired meal?

Dad is a fantastic Chinese chef and, funnily enough, I’ve just eaten one of his meals. I’m currently in the fourteen-day mandatory Government quarantine, having returned to Australia from the UK. And, while I do appreciate the meals and accommodation being provided, there’s nothing that lifts the spirits like Dad’s soy sauce chicken. It’s a real family recipe and I now cook it for friends in London (where I also live for some of the year.) 

I’m sure Dad would create a fabulous classical music inspired meal. I wonder what it would consist of? A light, small, flavour-packed dumpling could be the overture. The concerto would need to have a star soloist with an equally good accompaniment in the background; perhaps Queensland mudcrab with XO-sauce egg noodles? And then Chinese roast duck with all the accoutrements for the symphony. I’d be quite satisfied after that concert of a meal!

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