How rising conductor Jenny Wong hopes to change the face of choral music
Jenny Wong had just secured her dream job as assistant conductor at the Los Angeles Master Chorale, but the 29-year-old was stuck in her native Hong Kong, unable to step into the new role until her artist’s visa was approved.
Wong had to prove her artistic worth to gain entry to this country, an exhausting process riddled with red tape that would end up stretching for six months. Wong was supposed to start at the Master Chorale, the resident chorus of Walt Disney Concert Hall, in August 2016 but had to anxiously wait in limbo until November, hoping her new employer would be willing to stand by for the visa approval. It was.
“It’s an experience that I would never wish on anyone,” Wong said in a recent interview. “It gives me a sense of not taking any season for granted, even now that we are in the middle of a pandemic. I’m so grateful for those who recommended me, and waited for me.”
Now, four years later, Wong has been promoted to the Master Chorale’s newly created position of associate artistic director. She will work closely with longtime artistic director Grant Gershon to make good on a recent pledge to devote 50% of all future programming to work by composers from historically underrepresented groups in classical music, including people of color and women.
Gershon said that Wong’s expansive worldview and natural ability to lead made her an ideal partner for this challenging moment in time, when the coronavirus has forced the indefinite postponement of Disney Hall concerts and a nationwide reckoning on racial justice has prompted urgent calls for cultural organizations to rethink their structures from the ground up, examining deep-seated issues of privilege, access and representation.
“As a conductor, you simply cannot get by on being just a great musician,” Gershon said. “You have to be an advocate. You have to be somebody who thinks about music and its role in society.”
Wong, who as a woman of color is still a rarity in the conducting world, has long considered her role in music and onstage. She distinctly remembers going to shows at Disney Hall when she was a doctoral student at USC and noticing that few people on the podium looked like her. It was the first time she felt the full impact of representation, or a lack thereof.
Now, she said, she relishes meeting young girls — aspiring conductors — often brought to her by their mothers after shows.
“The reason I get to be at a podium in Disney Hall is that there were people who came before me who worked hard, with great intention, to make that possible for me,” Wong said. “I have a responsibility to do the same.”
Wong’s fan base includes experimental opera wunderkind and MacArthur fellow Yuval Sharon, who recruited her to co-conduct his critically acclaimed “Sweet Land.” The immersive opera delved into the cultural erasure of Indigenous people and took place inside a state park at the industrial outskirts of downtown L.A.
Sharon first saw Wong in action at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, conducting the L.A. Master Chorale in the Peter Sellars-directed production of Orlando di Lasso’s “Lagrime di San Pietro.”
“She felt completely, organically connected to the whole ensemble in terms of her movement and her connection to her text,” Sharon said. “She wasn’t hovering above the music, she was a part of it.”
His immediate reaction: “When can we work together?”
Although coronavirus brought “Sweet Land” to a premature close in March, Sharon has future plans with Wong. As Long Beach Opera’s interim artistic advisor, he has put her on the 2021 schedule to conduct a double bill of Arnold Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” and Kate Soper’s “Voices From the Killing Jar.”
Sharon said he hoped Wong’s appointment as the Master Chorale’s associate artistic director would serve as a catalyst to other cultural organizations seeking to increase diversity. His own company, the Industry, is looking to divest its own leadership from “one sole white male to other perspectives and other voices.”
“Those diverse and extraordinary artists are already here in L.A.; they just need to be given the chance,” Sharon said. “It’s not hard to find them.”
Wong believes all of her accomplishments to date, including the esteem of her peers, are thanks to her early exposure to music.
“I always thought that if there could be anything good said about me, I could trace it back to being in choir,” she said, adding that she began singing in one at age 6 and never stopped.
Another early influence was the city of Hong Kong itself, and the multicultural upbringing it fostered. Wong saw herself as Chinese, but there was, of course, a huge British influence in her life, and most of her education was in English. The metropolis, she said, was a rich tapestry of ideas, influences and perspectives.
“It was this unique, integrated culture,” Wong said, “which meant that nothing was really odd, and everything was welcome.”
Wong was an only child, and both her parents were lawyers with no particular musical inclinations. She earned her undergraduate degree in voice performance at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and afterward was quickly hired as a conductor at her high school alma mater.
She began taking her choirs to international competitions and became one of the youngest conductors to win consecutive titles at the World Choir Games, in 2010 and ’11. Listening to singers from South Africa, the Philippines, New Zealand, Latvia, Bulgaria and beyond was eye-opening.
“It was incredibly inspiring and liberating to know that music doesn’t have to look and sound a certain way,” Wong said, rattling off influences including Jessye Norman, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Childish Gambino. “All of that work is relevant and beautiful.”
She quickly realized choral organizations don’t have to limit themselves to performing the music they have always performed, she said.
“What defines artistry? Is it only understanding musical structures and theory through a Eurocentric, classical point of view? Are only operatic voices beautiful?” she asked, answering her own questions with this reply. “Chorale music is, in a way, the most human of art forms, and has the capacity of multiplicity, because every single human voice is unique.”
The Master Chorale appointment brings Wong back to the city where she earned her master’s and doctorate degrees. She said the Master Chorale had long been open to pushing boundaries, and she is ready to help the chorus to stretch and to incorporate a variety of influences and sounds.
The silver lining of the pandemic, Wong said, is that it has given the organization time to shake up chorale music against the backdrop of social change — in the way it appoints leaders, the way it approaches performances, and the way it thinks about access to music and education.
She and Gershon are exploring options for a youth choir, among other initiatives. Wong’s hope is that one day more young people from all walks of life, neighborhoods, ethnicities and backgrounds can look back and trace their accomplishments to one fundamental gift: early access to music.
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