Community Outreach was one of the main ideas behind this dedicated conductor’s return to Asia after graduating from the mdw. He now works with formations including the Macao Youth Symphony Orchestra, offers various kinds of training, and designs educational programmes for the musical youth of his home country.
When Stephen Lam had his first lessons on the violin, he was only four years old. In this, he wasn’t that much different from other children in Hong Kong—which, at that time, was a British crown colony with an educational system much like that of the United Kingdom. “Every Hong Kong school student was obligated to learn a classical instrument, and every school had its own orchestra and choir.”
Stephen Lam’s early musical experience extended to his private sphere, as well: his father’s enthusiasm for classical music helped shape his musical tastes from the very beginning. As a teenager, Stephen Lam would go on to play in numerous school and youth orchestras. But the way in which Western classical music was presented there seldom conformed to his own ideals, sparking his desire to become a conductor himself—and his first opportunity to conduct a choir and orchestra during his high school years left him even more determined to pursue his desired career.
It had always been my wish to remain in Vienna, but I view it as my responsibility to take the musical knowledge I acquired at the mdw back to China.
Alongside his love of music, however, the young student also began taking an interest in other areas. Environmental protection was one topic with which he was especially taken. “I’d always thought that human beings are doing too much damage to the environment, and I do think one should live in harmony with one’s surroundings.” He initially enrolled in an environmental science degree programme at the University of Hong Kong and also pursued literary studies, which likewise remains a passion of this broadly interested musician. “Literature helps me better understand the world, letting me experience various different stories that wouldn’t be possible in reality.” After completing these two degrees, he decided to continue by studying music in Vienna. “I didn’t want to regret not having studied music later on. It had always been my dream”, reminisces Lam, who’s since graduated from the mdw. In Vienna, the future conductor set out in search of what he refers to as the “true tradition” of classical music and its creators. “The mdw is Austria’s oldest and, to my mind, its best university of music. It was only here that I ended up applying; another university wouldn’t have been an option.” Teachers including Uroš Lajovic, Simeon Pironkoff, and Johannes Wildner inspired him with their expert knowledge, and the young musician immersed himself deepest of all in the study of musical traditions. Today, he still thinks back fondly to a concert with the Webern Symphonie Orchester on the occasion of the Zubin-Mehta-Saal’s opening at which the maestro himself was present: “The opportunity to engage in exchange with the maestro was wonderful, as was the performance with this fantastic orchestra. It’s my fondest memory from my time at the mdw.”
Upon completion of his training, the freshly minted mdw graduate decided to return home and work to support musically active young people. “It had always been a desire of mine to remain in Vienna, but I view it as my responsibility to take the musical knowledge I acquired at the mdw back to China. There’s a greater need for it over there, I think.” In addition to the numerous lectures he gives at various Hong Kong schools, Stephen Lam teaches as a visiting professor at the universities of Zhuhai and Shenzhen and also supports the Macao Youth Symphony Orchestra as its assistant conductor. “Working with young musicians is different from working with professionals. And what I try to do is convey the music more clearly and interestingly so that the young people will be captivated by it.”
Engaging in exchange with the maestro was wonderful, as was the performance with this fantastic orchestra. It’s my fondest memory from my time at the mdw.
This committed conductor views bringing together musicians who study at numerous different schools and lack a common style or other unifying attributes as being the biggest challenge involved in training orchestral players in China. “I remember reading the book Wahrung der Gestalt by Hans Swarowsky. He viewed musical style as being handed down by experienced conductors through their teaching, with their students then having the opportunity to join professional orchestras. But where I come from, there is no such cycle. Our orchestras are still very young, and building up a style and traditions is something that takes time.” Since returning home, Stephen Lam has been particularly active in community outreach and frequently realises new projects. “I’ll use Ein deutsches Requiem by Johannes Brahms, for example, to discuss Buddhism with the listeners, or I’ll introduce Maurice Ravel in combination with Chinese literature. I want to associate music with something that’s familiar to the audience; doing that makes it more accessible.”
At the moment, this mdw graduate is engaged in a project called Music and Mindfulness that aims to raise public awareness of psychological health issues, since many of his students are suffering from depression or have been left without social lives after two years of COVID-19. In the project’s individual sessions, works such as the overture from Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin and Arvo Pärt’s Salve Regina alternate with narration by a music therapist.
This passionate music outreach enthusiast would also like to spend time in Europe again someday in order to build a bridge to Asia and function as an ambassador for cultural exchange. “If I do so, perhaps an opportunity will arise to work together with those renowned orchestras that meant so much to me during my years of training. That would be a dream come true.”