Never fear failure
Perry So Pak-hin is assistant conductor of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. At the age of 26, three years ago, he became the youngest winner of the prestigious International Prokofiev Competition in Russia. He has charmed classical-music lovers in Hong Kong and around the world since he was appointed to his position last year.
You read comparative literature at Yale. How did you end up becoming a conductor?
I had wanted to conduct since I was eight. But the opportunity to go to Yale [University in the United States] was one I thought I should take. I also had a pretty good sense that if I became a musician - and I certainly wasn't entirely sure that I wanted to be one at that point - I would have a lot of intellectual tools to bring to the table. Many of my colleagues are intuitive and expressive musicians, but they don't express themselves in language as well as they could. I felt that in the 21st century classical music has to prove its relevance and we need to be eloquent enough to act as spokespersons for the art form and culture.
Were you apprehensive at the prospect of leading the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra at such a young age?
The wonderful thing about conducting is that you have 100 people who are working towards the same goal. They may disagree on how they get there, but they all know what the goal is. In the end, what you're making is music, and there's something innocent and beautiful about that. As long as I know what I want out of music and make a personal appeal to my colleagues, as opposed to just telling people what to do, then I never have a problem.
Who are your influences?
I'm inspired by every great conductor I meet. Edo de Waart [the philharmonic's chief conductor] is an amazing inspiration. I'm often inspired by the orchestras I work with. When they're on top form, I'm lifted by it. I am also inspired by great statesmen such as Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela for their incredible leadership and how strong their soft power was. That's a great inspiration for the podium because it's exactly what we need.
Would you advise people to pursue music as a career?
This is not a career you can enter into blindly. You have to know yourself very well and be able to take failure. What we give to our audience has to be so compelling, beautiful and strong that they can't resist. If you're just a wallflower, then forget it, unless you're happy playing in a hotel bar. Also, for doctors, lawyers and bankers, their [career] paths are set up so that people are tested constantly. Here on the podium, you are given one chance and, if you are not at your best, no one will want to see you ever again.