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‘I feel at home on the podium’: Indonesian conductor Rebecca Tong

Ni Nyoman Wira
Ni Nyoman Wira

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Thu, October 8, 2020  /  11:01 am

Indonesian conductor Rebecca Tong made headlines when she was crowned the winner of La Maestra, an international competition for women conductors held from Sept. 15 to 18 at Philharmonie de Paris in France.

Organized by the Philharmonie de Paris and Paris Mozart Orchestra, the inaugural event aimed to shine a light on talented female conductors and make changes in the branch of the arts.

Rebecca, who also won the Arte Prize and French Concert Halls and Orchestra Prize as the event’s special awards, was selected from among 220 applicants from 51 countries. She had to pass three challenging rounds with limited rehearsal times. In the final round, she performed the third movement of Bartók’s Divertimento, the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, Op. 55 in E flat major and Fabio Vacchi’s Was Beethoven African?.

“To be honest, I didn’t plan to win. What I planned was to make music and experience [conducting a] French orchestra,” Rebecca told The Jakarta Post on Sept. 25.

Rebecca’s musical journey started at a very young age when her mother taught her piano. She later pursued a musical education in the United States, but realized that practicing five to six hours a day alone could make her lonely. At the time, she was in an orchestra and happy to be part of it, but she wanted to do more. When she was able to try conducting, it turned out that she really loved it. In 2006, Rebecca began conducting at the age of 22.

“My first time [performing as a conductor] was intimidating, but why I kept pursuing it was because I felt at home on the podium. I feel like this is where I should be even when I feel so overwhelmed,” she said.

Rebecca, who completed her master’s degree in orchestral conducting at the College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati, the US, said that a conductor had to understand various aspects of a piece, including where it was written, its background, genre and connection with society.

“Let’s say a piece could be written between 1942-1945 in Germany, so we know that during that time World War II was happening and there was oppression, suffering,” she said. “A conductor needs to study the score and how to convey what he or she knows to the orchestra […]. On top of that is how to make beautiful music and share it with the audience. So, there are a lot of factors in being a conductor.”

Her journey as a conductor was not always smooth or easy. There were times she felt she did not make any progress with her technique and some people told her she was not good enough. “Don’t listen to those voices. They’re harmful for you and everybody around you. I keep telling myself that if you work hard and study enough, you should get somewhere,” she said.

The lack of female conductors and gender inequality are issues within the sector. In 2019, Billboard.com noted that the “gender mix of conductors” was “relatively unchanged” from 2006 to 2016.

Rebecca said that she had not experienced gender discrimination in her career so far. “We need to be thankful for people before us who have opened a pathway for both male and female [conductors],” she said. “For the longest time, we’ve viewed conducting as a male profession, but I feel like there haven't been many opportunities available and a number of women don’t really see it as a female profession.”

She felt certain that female conductors would make themselves known, particularly after La Maestra Paris 2020, while hoping that questions about gender inequality would be far fewer in the future. “What we must ask to ourselves is, 'Are they good conductors?' Not 'Is he a good, male conductor or is she a good, female conductor?',” she said.

Rebecca, who aspires to learn about gamelan, suggests to those who wish to follow her path to learn as much as they can and use the resources that they can find, including finding a mentor who can teach conducting or enroll in conducting programs. She also encourages people to study music scores to have a deeper knowledge of the field. (wng)

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