Lam Get Ready To Lead
He may be from the land Down Under, but Australian-born Dane Lam is making a new home with Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra these days as its incoming music director.
His career consists of stringing musical notes together, and yet when Dane Lam isn’t wielding a baton, he’s seldom found listening to songs.
Sure, he may fire up Art Tatum, Bill Evans or some other jazz great from time to time — maybe even throw on a little Tony Bennett for good measure just to create an appropriate setting while, say, hosting a dinner party.
But for the most part, the seasoned conductor prefers to pass his off-the-podium time ruminating in quietness.
“If I’m being honest, I very rarely listen to music when I’m not performing or studying it because it takes up so much of my life,” says the music director designate of Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra.
“I find the silence to be liberating, renewing and refreshing.”
Perhaps his proclivity for quietude shouldn’t be all that surprising. Like other conductors, Lam — who officially assumes his post at HSO next week when he arrives in the islands — must guide his orchestral performances like a mime. His primary task is to speak through arm gestures, eye contact and other facial expressions, and unify his ensemble by establishing tempo, controlling pace and dynamics, and ensuring complete intonation all while breathing life into the musical score.
Shaping an orchestra’s overall sound is something that Lam has slowly perfected over the years. He’s showcased this ability as principal conductor and artistic director of China’s Xi’an Symphony Orchestra (roles he still holds today) and while leading performances for Opera Queensland, and Adelaide and Melbourne symphony orchestras.
Yet as smoothly and quickly as he resonates with ensembles, Lam’s ability to connect with communities is equally impressive, and will likely make this 30-something a local fan-favorite over the next five years.
“When I was offered the job as music director, I jumped at the opportunity because I do think there’s so much we can all do together in building the orchestra and making it a firm part of the community,” explains Lam, whose contract with HSO runs through the 2027-28 season. “I suppose what all orchestras should be asking themselves right now is what does an orchestra mean to a community in the 21st century, and how can we tell everybody’s story and make everybody feel included and be of value to the community?”
The community, he believes, has much to offer when it comes to operating a first-rate orchestra. In fact, he encourages the public to approach him wherever he might be, whether “waiting in line for coffee in the morning or on my morning run or when I go out to eat in the evenings,” and strike up a conversation about any topic, including advice on improving their HSO experience.
“I really hope that people feel comfortable enough to come up to me and say ‘hi,’ and share their hopes and their dreams and their aspirations for the symphony and how the symphony can serve them better,” says Lam, who’s been credited with boosting the classical subscription offering and attendance numbers with Xi’an Symphony Orchestra, not to mention leading the orchestral revival in Australia following COVID lockdowns.
Lam’s appointment as HSO’s incoming music director was first announced publicly in January. Since then, he’s had two opportunities to privately lead the orchestra and begin developing chemistry with its 80-plus members.
“They were really wonderful encounters,” he shares. “We seemed to understand each other musically and artistically and have the same goals. There was a lot that went unspoken, which is really wonderful when you’re working with an orchestra and you don’t have to speak too much but you can let your gestures and your shared musical experience do the talking.”
Just as importantly, the native of Brisbane, Australia, immediately felt at ease among kama‘āina.
“Being of mixed background myself as Singaporean, Chinese and Australian, I felt right at home in Hawai‘i when I got there,” he notes. “Also, being from Brisbane, there’s this great Pacific synergy because we sort of bookend the Pacific, and so the lifestyle and the vibe and the spirit of Hawai‘i really got to me.”
His debut with HSO takes place in the coming days with “Dane’s Ultimate Season Mix-Tape,” slated for Aug. 5 at Waikīkī Shell. The preview to the organization’s 2023-24 season will not only feature favorite selections from Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, but also live performances from special guests Paula Fuga, Kenneth Hironaka (Nā Hōkū ‘Opio Young Stars winner) and Trishnālei (Mana Up People’s Choice Award champion).
“My ‘Ultimate Season Mix-Tape’ is a little teaser, a little amuse bouche of the very best work from our upcoming season,” explains Lam, adding that he’s especially pleased to showcase HSO’s composer-in-residence Michael-Thomas Foumai and his skillful “telling of Hawaiian stories.”
“It’s just a great taster of what to expect when audiences can join us in the concert hall and when we can open the season proper in October,” Lam says.
That performance will be followed up with several shows at Hawai‘i Theatre, including “Beyond Hapa,” which stars Lea Almanza, Starr Kalahiki, Brandy Lee and Lady Laritza La Bouche, Oct. 7; “The Dawn of Dane,” with violinist Jennifer Koh in the spotlight, Oct. 8; and “Na Leo Pilimehana,” showcasing the three members of the all-female Hawaiian group — Nalani Jenkins, Lehua Kalima and Angela Morales — Dec. 2.
Lam may not descend from a family of professional musicians, but there was certainly enough happening at home to spark an interest in music during his prelude years. As a result, he quickly gravitated toward several instruments, principally, the piano, clarinet and saxophone.
“My mum and my grandma are both pianists, and my dad played a bit of guitar,” explains Lam, the eldest of three children who also has four half-siblings from his father’s previous and subsequent marriages. “My mum, in particular, is a big orchestral and ballet fan, though I was going to concerts in Queensland from an early age, and I think my parents were thrilled when the whole musical part started to take shape.”
But Lam had greater ambitions than to simply tickle ivories or blow into instruments. Even back then, he aimed to be a conductor on the world’s biggest stages.
“I wanted to do that from a pretty early age, and I was very fortunate to go to a fantastic high school that had an excellent music program. I was able to plan orchestras, sing in choirs, play in jazz and concert bands to get this real depth and breadth of musical experience,” he explains.
Lam admits to also being “lucky enough” to come along at a time when the Australian government was investing large sums of money in training a new generation of conductors with The Symphony Australia Conductor Development program.
That program would provide him the opportunity to take master classes with professional orchestras around the country, all under the guidance of both guest and chief conductors.
“It’s really unusual to be learning with these top-flight orchestras — almost like learning to drive in a Lamborghini — so you know that if anything goes wrong, it’s really your own fault,” chuckles the man who studied conducting under Gwyn Roberts at University of Queensland. “But it also makes you sensitive, it attunes you to what a conductor can do, how a conductor can get in the way, and how a conductor can really help galvanize musicians to all head in the same direction of travel to create these trans-formative, artistic, musical and human experiences.”
Music may have first taken root for him in the land Down Under, but his love for conducting has been cultivated in other parts of the world, too — namely, in Italy, England and New York, where he studied at the prestigious Juilliard School.
Gratefully, he states that a career that has “taken me everywhere” also led him to find his partner for life. Lam met Sofia Troncoso, an operatic soprano, at Wigmore Hall in London through some mutual friends. As he recalls of their initial meeting and subsequent romance, “We hit it off, went on dates and the rest is history.”
That was 2017, and the couple planned to wed on North Stradbroke Island in Queensland three years later. The pandemic, however, caused them to briefly hit the pause button when half the wedding party couldn’t make the trip due to travel restrictions. So, the couple decided to tie the knot in quiet fashion at a Brisbane registry office in late 2020, with Lam’s immediate family present and Troncoso’s U.S.-based relatives attending via Zoom.
Now the couple, who is expecting their first child in September, is talking about renewing their vows before family in the coming weeks.
“It would be wonderfully poetic now that everything has come full circle and we will have our baby there and now it is really the midpoint between our families who have another reason to visit Hawai‘i,” says Lam.
While the conductor plans to hold on to his positions with Xi’an Symphony Orchestra, Lam insists that local audiences have no reason to worry. He promises that his duties with Xi’an won’t interfere with his commitment to HSO.
“I suppose the conducting profession is quite the itinerant position in that conductors do hold multiple positions and travel a lot,” he confesses.
“But Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra is definitely my first priority. I think it’s so important to be present in the city, in the place where the orchestra calls home. If you think about these great U.S. orchestras of the 20th century, you have the Philadelphia Orchestra where Eugene Ormandy was there for decades, and (Serge) Koussevitzky at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner in Chicago and George Szell in Cleveland, these people lived in these cities and spent the majority of their time with the orchestra.
“That’s what I’m going to do with Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra.”