We just got back from a talk with Ken Lam, the director of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, and his principal oboe player, Zac Hammond, and we gotta say, we’re feeling inspired. The two spoke at Creative Mornings Charleston’s talk on Language and by spoke we also mean played and conducted, because that’s what these guys do best.
The morning started with CMCHS’ host Ivan Lima defining the word “creative” with a sort of mission statement. Lately we’ve felt a little disillusioned by CMCHS’ talks — the speakers are always great, but sometimes the corporate sponsorship takes away from the event’s sincerity. In Lima’s mission statement though he defines a creative as someone who makes the things they love, believes in giving a damn, and thrives on face-to-face interactions. We couldn’t agree more.
Zac Hammond kicked the morning off with his life story which begins with a Chicago Cubs obsessed family, and ends with his current leadership position in the CSO. Hammond says that the hipster 5th grader in him chose the oboe as an instrument simply because no one else wanted to play it. The rest, as they say, is history.
Ken Lam hails from Hong Kong and describes his childhood as one overseen by “Asian tiger parents.” “You had to learn how to play two instruments and how to speak two languages, just to get into elementary school,” says Lam. An avid violinist Lam wanted to go to music school for college but his mom suggested he do something “for real.” So he graduated from Cambridge with a degree in economics, and later, in the law.
As a busy lawyer, Lam turned to his favorite reprieve to stay sane — playing music. During his spare time he played the violin and joined community groups who performed in mini orchestras. His big musical break? At one community group rehearsal the conductor didn’t show up and Lam volunteered, using his pencil as a baton. “I got the pencil stuck in my forehead, there was blood everywhere. It’s hard to get lead out,” he laughs. And with that one passionate pencil stroke, Lam knew he wanted to be a conductor.
“It is the human condition to look for something beautiful,” says Lam, who is nothing but joyful about his current position. He took a year off 10 years ago to attend Peabody Conservatory, a music school where he studied conducting. “I went on holiday 10 years ago, and I’m still on holiday,” he says.
The talk got into the language of music when Hammond played the oboe for us, reading from the notes of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. The musical notes have actual written notes beneath them — they encourage the oboe player to play notes that are “simple but graceful.” Hammond laughed and admitted that he’s obsessed over those two words for a very long time. He then played what he described as a reconciliation of the idea of simplicity and grace. And hey, it sounded great to us.
When it comes to conducting, Lam says that he has to find the balance between being the boss and letting his musicians use their own artistic licenses. “I’m the only person on stage who doesn’t make a sound. I have to use my body to communicate,” he says. And then he showed us, conducting Hammond in two different styles, the first limiting Hammond’s musical freedoms, the second harnessing them.
Standing before a crowd of mostly young creatives, squeezed tight into the hallway of Launchpad, a new co-working space on Meeting Street, Lam glowed with excitement. The guy loves his job. And he offered some advice that we think just about every young person wants to hear — “just go for it, it’s going to be OK.”
Lam says, “We can never be totally ready for anything. But where there’s a will and a passion, there’s a way.”