These Symphony-commissioned feature articles offer insights into the music you’ll hear in the concert hall.

Dec 1, 2023

In the Mix: Chorus Director Jenny Wong
Jenny Wong was announced in September as the new director of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, just the fourth in its 50-year history. A native of Hong Kong, Wong is also the associate artistic director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale. We spoke to her about her life on the podium, both center stage and behind the scenes.
How did you get to be a chorus director? 
Growing up in Hong Kong, my best friends and I were singing in the choir, and I remember saying to them, is there anywhere in the world where I could just be in rehearsal every day? And now, that’s my life! But I never thought of it as a possible career. I went to college at the University of Illinois. For the first time in my life, I felt like a minority. That was a little frightening, but in choir, I felt a great sense of belonging, where people really just saw me as a soprano. So, I stuck to choir, and it became the thing that I really aspired to do.
I graduated and went back to Hong Kong and taught middle school and high school. The school choirs I was directing started receiving recognition and winning international awards. And at age 21 or 22 I realized that I might be good at this. I went to USC for grad school, to study conducting, and taught in college for a year after getting my doctorate, and that led to my position with the Los Angeles Master Chorale. 
Who are some of your strongest musical influences?
My high school choir conductor in Hong Kong, Ronnie Cheng, was my first inspiration. He planted the seeds of making me dream of being a conductor. Another mentor is Grant Gershon [Artistic Director of the LA Master Chorale], to whom Esa-Pekka Salonen was a great mentor; also, learning from and collaborating with the legendary director Peter Sellars, who brings meaning to every work of art he touches. One thing that I always look up to in Esa-Pekka, Grant, and Peter is that they listen deeply. As a conductor and chorus master, I aspire to listen to the same level of fine detail in music and depth of meaning. 
So many kinds of music have influenced me. But I remember standing on the podium leading the Dies Irae of the Verdi Requiem as a conducting fellow, with 200 professional singers and a professional orchestra for the first time. Just the sheer power of hearing that huge wave of sound come at me; that was one of the moments where I felt, “I want to do choral orchestral music.” 
About five years ago I had another highly memorable experience, when I prepared the LA Master Chorale for the US premiere of Tan Dun’s Buddha Passion with the LA Phil. I had the immense honor of teaching both the music and the Mandarin language to the Chorale. That moment made feel that where I came from, and the music that I grew up singing as a child, had a place on the great stage of Walt Disney Concert Hall with the LA Phil.
What is it like to prepare the chorus in rehearsal and have a different conductor lead them in the concert? 
I do love being on the podium, but I’ve always enjoyed collaboration. Whether one is conducting the music during the concert, or in rehearsal, at the end of the day the job boils down to making sure that the musicians have what they need to succeed. 
The work is the most fulfilling and inspiring when there’s a chance to develop a long-term relationship with the conductor. I’ve been fortunate to be able to do that with Esa-Pekka Salonen. He’s one of the most brilliant musicians of our time, and it is endlessly inspiring to watch him work in rehearsal, as well as in performance. I remember one of the first times I worked with him I was a little bit intimidated. I went up to him during rehearsal and said, “Is there anything you need from me, I don’t want to take up too much of your time.” And he said, “No, this is our time.” And it’s that kind of humanity and respect that I think every conductor should always have.
You and your husband [singer David Rakita] are still living in Los Angeles but you get to spend time around San Francisco.
We love the Bay Area; we have some family here. It’s one of the Cantonese capitals of the country, and it’s really heartwarming to hear Cantonese virtually everywhere I go; it feels like home. I’m looking forward to getting to know the communities better. And just helping to let more people know about the Symphony and the Chorus!
My husband and I both love being in nature. Seeing redwoods for the first time is incredibly humbling. I think it’s important to have experiences like that, outside of music, where we feel connected to our surroundings and the people around us.
We love traveling, which we get to do for work. But I should say that nowadays we have very little time for hobbies beyond work, because we also have a nine-month-old, and that’s our job and a hobby all wrapped into one!

Steve Holt is a contributing writer to the San Francisco Symphony’s program book.

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