Samuel Wong must be the only person in the world to have operated on three people in the morning and conducted the New York Philharmonic that night. He came to both professions--surgeon and conductor--honorably, if untypically.
Trained at the Harvard Medical School, Wong, 31, received a degree in ophthalmology in 1988, and interned for two years at the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital and for a year in internal medicine at Winthrop University Hospital in Mineola, N.Y.
But music had always been part of his life.
A native of Hong Kong, he began playing the piano when he was 4, he said in a phone interview from Brno, in the Czech Republic, where he was rehearsing for a concert with the State Orchestra of that city. (He will lead the Pacific Symphony in a Tchaikovsky program Saturday at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre.)
“When I was 9, we moved to Toronto because of the red scare (in Hong Kong). The communists were rioting. The stock market plunged. The currency plunged. I recall not being able to walk my dog. I was not allowed to go out.”
Wong’s father was an executive with Kodak, and the Fortune 500 company offered him a choice of relocating in Toronto or Rochester, N.Y. The family chose Toronto. (Wong is a Canadian citizen.) After the move, he continued to study piano, added voice and later violin lessons and graduated from the Royal Conservatory of Music summa cum laude.
He went on to become “an intellectual bum” at Harvard University, although as an undergraduate he also managed at 19 to become music director of the university’s Bach Society Orchestra.
“Those were really great years of personal development,” he said. “I felt no pressure to study any particular field. Harvard is a great place for academic loitering. People are there who are just bums, intellectual bums, basically. That’s perfectly fine.”
But when it came time to graduate, Wong felt he was “not equipped to do anything, as were half my classmates.” He went into medicine because “I wanted to help people.”
Concurrent with his medical residencies, however, Wong was named music director of the New York Youth Symphony, and it was at a rehearsal of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” in 1990 that fate intervened.
Conductor Zubin Mehta dropped in on the rehearsal, Wong said. “He stayed for an hour. Nothing came of it for a long time. Then one day, his office called and he said, ‘You should come and assist me.’ I couldn’t refuse that. It was almost like an impulse thing to pick up and leave medicine. But it was absolutely the right thing to do.”
The final turning point was “a very special day in the summer of ’90. I operated on three kids in the morning to correct their squints--the medical term is strabismus. In the evening, I conducted the New York Philharmonic. That was when the two roads divided.”
Wong and his wife, Korean-American violinist Hae-Young Ham, a member of the New York Philharmonic, live in New York City and occasionally play concerts together. Wong also serves as music director of the Ann Arbor (Mich.) Symphony, a position held by Pacific Symphony music director Carl St.Clair from 1985 until spring of last year.
“He mainly interested me in the Ann Arbor job,” Wong said. “It’s a very small world, this profession.”
Wong says his medical background has “enriched my life, even my music.
“In medicine you have the chance to see a lot things . . . suffering, hysteria, death, hopelessness, despair, and the flip side--hope, recovery, triumph over adversity,” he said.
“It’s all very inspiring and a good substratum for the emotional life of music . . . . To understand the power of a heart beating or the joy and rapture of a baby being born and the misery of dying cancer patients--these things are not teachable.”
There are two companions that go with cellist Daniel Gaisford on all his travels. One is his superb 1706 Matteo Goffriller cello. The other is his equally superb 14-pound, 2-year-old old Wolf Spitz named Baccoon.
“I made up the name,” Gaisford, 28, said in a recent phone interview form his home in Upstate New York. “It’s spelled like ‘raccoon,’ but with a B. I take him everywhere. He breaks the ice with orchestras. He sits under my chair. People come up and start a conversation. It’s real blast.”
Actually, Baccoon will turn 3 on Saturday, when Gaisford appears as soloist in Tchaikovsky’s “Variations on a Rococo Theme” with the Pacific Symphony.
The dog will not be sitting under the soloist’s chair during the program but will be waiting at the hotel.
Born in Campbell, Calif., Gaisford grew up in Salt Lake City, moved to Los Angeles in 1983 to study with Gabor Rejto, Ronald Leonard and Heimann Weinstine at USC, then with Harvey Shapiro and Channing Robbins at the Juilliard School of Music in New York.
It was Shapiro who found him the Goffriller.
“He told me, ‘I’ve got the cello for you. It fits your personality. It’s absolutely right for you. It’s a Goffriller, and it’s better than mine.’ I said, ‘How the hell can I afford a Goffriller?’
“He said, ‘Go play it.’ I adored it. I fell in love with this instrument immediately; it’s so incredible.”
Thanks to a loan from a bank in Utah, Gaisford was able to buy the instrument. He declined to estimate its value, as do most owners of rare instruments.
“Goffriller cellos are equivalent to Stradivari cellos or Guarneri,” he said. “This is one of the finest Goffrillers I’ve ever seen. It was incredible luck.”
Tchaikovsky’s “Rococo Variations” is “incredibly popular with everybody but has had a troubled past.” Apparently there are two versions of the work--the original and the “standard” or published (1889) version, which was edited by a cellist friend of the composer and which Tchaikovsky must have approved.
“The last variation that Tchaikovsky wrote is almost completely left out, but half of it is connected to the fourth variation in the original. It’s very confusing.”
However, the published version allows the work to end in a blaze of virtuosity where “you have flying staccato and you’re racing all over the instrument.”
“I don’t think it’s bad to play that standard version. Tchaikovsky liked it. It’s a rather wonderful work and fun to play. People think of it as being so technically difficult, but you can make so much music out of it. There is so much there. Just dig deep and pull it out.”
* Cellist Daniel Gaisford will be soloist in Tchaikovsky’s “Variations on a Rococo Theme” with the Pacific Symphony, led by Samuel Wong, on Saturday at 8 p.m. at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, 8800 Irvine Center Drive. Also on the program are “Marche slave,” “1812" Overture and the Symphony No. 5. $14 to $46. (714) 740-2000.