Music has been a driving force in Ken Lam’s life from his earliest years—he started piano lessons at age three and the violin followed a couple of years later. But the true calling of Montclair State University’s new director of Orchestral Studies has always been conducting. Even as a child in Hong Kong, Lam was mesmerized by Leonard Bernstein and would tape televised concerts conducted by the dynamic maestro.
Now a rising star in the world of conducting and winner of the prestigious 2011 Memphis International Conducting Competition, Lam intends to set the same high bar for the Montclair State University Symphony Orchestra that he has always set for himself. Along with his full-time University post, Lam holds part-time appointments as the resident conductor at the Brevard Music Center in North Carolina, where he works with professional and student orchestras; artistic director of the Greater Baltimore Youth Orchestra; artistic director of Hong Kong Voices; and education artistic director of the World Piano Competition.
“I’m a very ambitious person and I like the vibe of this school. The location close to New York City is great, the faculty here is absolutely world class, and the music school is growing a great deal,” Lam says. “We have the potential to attract students from all parts of the country and internationally. I expect the school to continue to grow both in terms of the level of the orchestra and its level of recruitment.”
His breadth and depth of experience in orchestral, choral, and operatic works, plus an ability to work well with students, proved an attractive mix in his appointment. “Ken is an outstanding musician and an outstanding conductor. He had all the qualities we were looking for,” says Thomas McCauley, director of University Bands, who also headed the search committee for the position. “He has the ability through his music to attract high quality students to the Cali School. He’s a soft-spoken, generous man and at the same time, he’s very focused on what he plans to do.”
Lam’s career trajectory as a conductor has been anything but traditional. High finance cast its spell early on. After earning a degree in economics at Cambridge University, he became a lawyer and spent more than 10 years working in Hong Kong and London for international law firm Clifford Chance as a specialist in asset finance. “I was young and found handling multi-billion dollar bond issues glamorous,” Lam jokes.
Meanwhile, music was always in the back of his mind and its drumbeat kept getting louder. He continued playing the piano and the violin, joined a lawyers’ orchestra, sang in a community choir, played with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta and the Hong Kong Chamber Orchestra, and even temporarily left his law firm to become a director and manager at Naxos, a Hong Kong-based classical music label.
When the rehearsal conductor for the Hong Kong Chamber Orchestra didn’t show up one day, Lam filled in. That fortuitous occasion started him on the path that would bring him full circle to the fulfillment of his earliest ambitions.
He threw himself into conducting, taking master classes in Europe and eventually putting aside his legal and financial career. Lam decided to go back to school, this time earning a master’s degree in orchestral conducting in 2007 from Baltimore’s renowned Peabody Institute.
One stellar opportunity after another quickly came Lam’s way. He made his professional conducting debut with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, in 2008. He was named assistant conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra the same year and a featured conductor at the 2009 Bruno Walter National Conductors’ Preview in Nashville, Tennessee. “I’ve been incredibly lucky,” he acknowledges modestly.
Lam plans to juggle his daunting conducting schedule and his teaching duties. “I think it’s a win-win situation, because what are we preparing our students for? We’re preparing them for the professional world,” he says. “My experience with professional orchestras helps me inform our students about what it’s like out there.”
Lam also wants to stoke students’ passion for music so that when faced with the realities of life, “they won’t lose the essence of what we’re doing here.” By that he means giving them a thorough grounding in the giants of classical music. “My job here is to expose our students to what made me become a musician, what makes anyone become a classical musician—the works of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and so on,” he says.
“I believe music is something that can make us all better people. Any civilized society must have music as an art. The best composers always have something to say in their music. I find they are all trying to answer the same philosophical questions that we all have.”
After further reflection, he adds, “Perhaps the most important thing is that music can unify us rather than divide us. We have enough division in this world.”