From mechanical engineering to composing for the Philharmonia Orchestra, Austin Leung has been traversing new territories since his early student days in Hong Kong. In this blog he shares with us what he learned from the RPS/Philharmonia Composers’ Academy, and why world music matters to him.
“World music is a kind of cultural heritage which, like a capsule, stores the history of different communities and regions. By incorporating the genres into new works, we can give a renewed value to history in our current generation. From this we get the feeling we’re crossing boundaries and space-times, bringing people together who have existed throughout the ages into a piece of work.”
As I write this, I cannot believe that my time in London is coming to an end. I came to the city two years ago to do an MMus at the Royal Academy of Music – my first time ever studying abroad. Back in Hong Kong, where I was still an Engineering student, the idea of leaving my country for my studies had never even crossed my mind. Like everyone else, I wanted to graduate from a local university, find a steady job and basically “survive”. The purpose of studying was never about gaining new knowledge for the sake of it, but for finding a better job and having a nice, easy life. However, after I discovered music in my second year of my undergraduate degree, everything changed. My whole outlook to life shifted and, fast forward a few years, I found myself in London.
As the summer RPS Women Conductors workshops draw closer, we hear from Gabrielle Woodward – a former workshop participant – about her journey as a conductor and how, through opportunities like the Women Conductors programme, she aspires to forge a career.
As a young composer the idea of conducting appealed to me as a way of directing my own pieces and have them performed to match my artistic visions. Even so, at Junior Guildhall School of Music and Drama, I remember being thrown in the deep end when I was called out in a workshop to conduct my new brass quintet, having never tried my hand at conducting before. It was a scary experience – standing up in front of a group of people and leading them – but I felt so alive as the ensemble started following my exact gestures.
Later that year I saw Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla make her debut performance with the CBSO at the BBC Proms and felt inspired by the performance as well as the news coverage around the event – a new female conductor! So this is how it began. I wanted to pursue conducting and the following year I took a class at Junior Guildhall and conducted various ensembles at my school.
Since then I’ve been keen to get as much experience conducting as possible. When I started at Oxford University in October 2016, I involved myself in as many projects and ensembles that I could that would also allow me the chance to wave the baton. This included conducting Worcester College Orchestra, Oxford University Symphonic Band, Keble String Ensemble and taking part in workshops with Abingdon Music Festival, Oxfordshire County Youth Orchestra and City of Southampton Orchestra all of which allowed me to conduct a wide range of repertoire. The opportunities to conduct in Oxford are extensive and there are so many like-minded young conductors both male and female who inspire each other with the work they do.
When I heard about the RPS Women Conductors course I was very excited to get involved. One of the key things I lacked, as a young conductor, was some of the confidence which my male counterparts demonstrated in rehearsals; particularly in terms of gestures and body language. Immediately our course director Alice Farnham, along with body-language coach Alma Sheehan, addressed this and gave us a series of lessons on presence, leadership and self-confidence on the podium.
My technique leapt forward in the space of two days, as Alice showed us an approach which was different to anything I had previously experienced. After each step forward I became more inspired to conduct professionally and become an advocate for female conductors; I had a new air of confidence which allowed me to start down this path.
Since the workshops I’ve contacted a variety of conductors asking to watch their concert rehearsals and I’ve learned a huge amount watching leaders such as Semyon Bychkov preparing large-scale works. Now an increasing number of conducting opportunities come my way. Just last week I conducted Mozart’s ‘The Impresario’ (featuring Simon Callow in a cameo role!) in which the director, Jonathan Bate, was excited by the prospect of having a female conductor at the heart of the production!