Why this young Hong Kong-born conductor chose to build his career in Seoul, as the popularity of classical music in South Korea soars

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Directing the orchestra from a central podium is 34-year-old Wilson Ng, the Hong Kong-born conductor wearing his signature red trousers.

“First and second viola, I love how you start but let’s do more diminuendo. Let’s try again,” Ng says in English. A softer viola tune follows.

Ng rehearses with the Hankyung Arte Philharmonic. Photo: Jiseok Jo

Ng was appointed the first principal guest conductor of the Hankyung Arte Philharmonic in November 2023 and will be bringing the orchestra, and Korean pianist Minsoo Sohn, to Hong Kong in March for the Hong Kong Arts Festival.

Ng’s ties to the festival go way back. In 2013, when he was 23, he and KaJeng Wong gave a recital of music for flute and piano during the festival, something he had dreamed of since he began learning to play the flute at the age of 11.

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He shifted to conducting in his mid-20s despite some of those close to him advising against it, saying that he was taking a big risk. But he knew he wanted to be the painter, instead of being a part of a painting, he says.

“Being a conductor is like having a window to see … what the composer has created. My role is to try my best to paint the picture of what I see for the audience,” Ng says.

As conductor, Ng founded the Gustav Mahler Orchestra in Hong Kong in 2014. He has won international awards for his conducting, including third prize in the 2020 Mahler Competition in Bamberg, Germany.

Ng began conducting in his mid-20s. Photo: Jiseok Jo

In 2018, at the age of 28, he was selected from among 113 applicants as the youngest associate conductor of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra in its history.

His selection came at a time when the orchestra was still recovering from years of infighting, scandal and police raids that led to Chung Myung-whun stepping down as its artistic director in 2015. Charges of embezzlement against Chung were later dropped.

Ng was the unanimous choice of the selection panel. He took up his appointment in early 2019.

I don’t want to just serve classical music lovers. My big mission is to serve people who have never heard of classical music

Wilson Ng

Why South Korea? Ng says it was a rare opportunity for him, as a conductor, to get a chance to audition for a big orchestra, since it is common for personal connections to play a large part in recruitment for such positions – and with the Seoul Phil’s recent history of problems, the auditions had become a very public process and were watched closely.

Also, he says Chung was one of the only two Asian conductors, along with Seiji Ozawa, he could look up to when he was growing up.

“I was an admirer of Chung’s work with Seoul Phil, not to mention that Seoul Phil is one of the best orchestras in Asia,” he adds.

While Ng’s role with the Seoul Philharmonic has now ended, there will soon be another Hong Kong connection at the orchestra. Jaap van Zweden will become its artistic director after finishing his contract with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra this year.
Ng judges a blind audition for the Hankyung Arte Philharmonic. Photo: Yi Hyosung

Ng found Seoul’s music scene to be vibrant despite arriving just before the coronavirus pandemic. The popularity of classical music in Korea has soared as young Korean musicians have won major international competitions and become household names.

For example, pianist Seong-jin Cho won first prize in the 2015 Chopin International Piano Competition and Yunchan Lim became the youngest ever winner of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2022 at the age of 18.

The classical music performance market in South Korea grew fourfold between 2020 and 2022, according to Interpark, one of the biggest concert ticket vendors in the country.

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Ng speaks highly of the discipline among musicians he has worked with in South Korea’s top orchestras.

The malleability of the Hankyung Arte Philharmonic given its relatively short history, and the adaptability of its young and energetic players, give Ng a lot to work with. These are facets less easy to find in older orchestras that are steeped in decades of tradition and history, he says.

It’s a sentiment shared by Park Sung-wan, the chief executive of Hankyung ArteTV and managing director of the orchestra.

“It is still a nascent orchestra and our members are very young. With these characteristics, we make music that is more youthful and energetic compared to those of more traditional national and public orchestras,” says Park. The average age of its musicians is in the low 30s.

Park Sung-wan (centre), CEO of Hankyung ArteTV and managing director of the Hankyung Arte Philharmonic, with Ng and Francisco Cho, general manager of the Hankyung Arte Philharmonic. Photo: Courtesy of the Hankyung Arte Philharmonic

The feedback from orchestra players about Ng’s appointment is positive. They say their shared Asian identity provides an added connection.

“Wilson is really good at bringing out emotion from musicians. Also, when he brings pieces like Ye Xiaogang’s The Faint Gingko, it is easier to intuitively understand the sentiment compared to the more difficult themes of Western composers’ pieces,” says Baek Soo-ryun, concertmaster of the orchestra.

Ng will soon be basing himself in London, where he will live in between his various international engagements, including his role with the Hankyung Arte Philharmonic.

His main focus in London will be his “Musicians without borders” project. Ng explains: “I don’t want to just serve classical music lovers. My big mission is to serve people who have never heard of classical music. I developed the project six years ago to reach out to more people in a new way.”

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Under this project, unusually, audience members are encouraged to stand anywhere they like during a concert, including in the middle of the orchestra, so that they can listen to and watch its musicians play close up. Ng hopes to launch a 2.0 version of this in London, in which musicians and audience members will chat backstage before a concert.

Ng says: “When the audience members are watching from their seats, it will be a fundamentally different experience, as they feel a personal connection with the musician they spent time with.”

While he jokingly refers to himself as a tourist in Hong Kong, he hopes still to contribute to musical life in his home city by developing a foundation to create an environment for young people to make music that is not defined by them taking standardised examinations.

He also wants to provide opportunities for students from poor backgrounds to learn and enjoy music.

Ng’s wish for himself is very simple.

“My big goal in life is to be able to be happy alone, in the here and now. I don’t need another concert, another big thing to be able to do that,” he says.

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