A conductor’s journey: Aik Khai Pung straddles East and West
It goes without saying that an orchestra conductor can’t do his job alone. For one thing, there wouldn’t be any sounds beyond those from a flailing baton.
But a musical team is larger than those who sit in the pit or stand on stage. Consider Aik Khai Pung.
“When the conductor is in the pit, it’s too low for him to tell what’s happening in the house,” said Pung — or “Khai,” as he prefers to be called — Spoleto Festival’s assistant conductor for the opera “Matsukaze” and a second-year veteran. “I’m like the deejay at that point, figuring out what’s soft or loud and adjusting all those factors.”
Khai described his role as being “a second ear” to the conductor of an orchestra. He has to be deeply attuned to the conductor’s musical interpretations and his expectations for the singers and players, helping to coordinate it all and make sure things run smoothly.
What sets Khai apart are his background in opera coaching, his knowledge of Oriental music and his mastery of several Chinese dialects, as well as Western languages like Italian, German and French — the holy trinity of opera languages.
Khai’s versatile talents served him well last year when he first came to the festival, selected by conductor Ken Lam, who needed an assistant for the Chinese opera “Feng Yi Teng.”
“The two (singers) in this production hailed from mainland China with little fluency in English,” said Lam, who had previously worked with Khai in Baltimore. “And Khai has such an unusual combination of talents that he was able to really communicate with them vocally. His familiarity with the Chinese instruments was such an added bonus, as well.”
Khai returned to Spoleto this year to assist resident conductor John Kennedy in “Matsukaze,” an opera based on a Japanese Noh play with a German libretto composed by Toshio Hosokawa of Japan.
In addition, Khai also led members of the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra in a May 27 Intermezzo performance of works by Charles Ives, Aaron Copland and Igor Stravinsky.
“Stravinsky based his piece on the 18th-century composer Giovanni Pergolesi,” Khai said. “It has all these modern rhythmic patterns, but since I recently started learning the viola da gamba, I wanted to give it a baroque style.”
His decision to perform Western rather than Eastern compositions at Spoleto was to show audiences that he could do both.
“It’s easy to get labeled as an Oriental music conductor, and somehow people forget that you are well informed in Western music as well,” Khai said. “They won’t hire you for Western operas or concerts. It’s important to emphasize that we are versatile and slightly more advantaged, in fact.”
Born in the Penang Islands of Malaysia, Khai never considered music a real option until he was 17. Adept at piano, violin and erhu (a two-stringed Chinese fiddle) at a very young age, he impressed his teachers, who made him student conductor of his high school choirs and orchestras. Khai dabbled, unsuccessfully, in a pre-university course in physics that only reinforced his interests in music.
“It took me three years to convince my parents,” Khai said. “Eventually they let me go to China to study at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing.”
In Beijing Khai majored in orchestral conducting and became well acquainted with several Chinese composers, among them Zhou Long, Chen Yi and Tan Dun. Conducting Western symphonies and orchestras still had not occurred to Khai until a visiting American professor, Mark Gibson, discovered him. With Gibson, Khai arrived at the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati to pursue his master’s and doctorate degrees in orchestra conducting. His natural abilities caught the attention of professors such as the rising conductor Annunziata Tomaro.
“I remember when I first met him vividly,” Tomaro said. “He had just arrived from China, knocked on my door with a huge smile on his face and introduced himself. He brought such a bright atmosphere with him.”
Tomaro gave Khai his first experience, assisting with rehearsals of operas such as “La Boheme” and “Il Barbiere di Siviglia,” where he spent hours copying out the Italian texts from scratch, translating them and learning how to pronounce the words.
“Khai was dedicated to his job,” Tomaro said. “In many ways he was always one step ahead and trying to think of what the situation required and what the orchestra needed.”
Khai was recently hired as an adjunct professor at the College-Conservatory of Music, where he will complete his doctorate in December. With a bright future ahead, Khai envisions putting his expertise and knowledge to use in the East.
“China has great opera houses, and the orchestral scene is very vibrant, but they need teachers,” Khai said. “I’d love to keep working on operas and coach more singers in the future.”
Eesha Patkar is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.