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Making a case for music: Ex-lawyer takes ISO podium

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Ken Lam

Ken Lam makes his full-time debut on the Illinois Symphony Orchestra podium later this month. The Hong Kong native and former lawyer says there is only one way to experience music at its best: live.

Meet Ken Lam for the defense.

For the defense of great music performed live, that is.

It's what he lives and breathes for.

And it's what he's bringing to us, straight from his heart.

"There is nothing like live music," he begins with an enthusiasm joyfully conveyed across a table in an empty room one recent day.

"You go to a concert and you are a part of the performance whether you're on stage or not. We (the musicians) feel the energy of the audience ... and the performance changes because of that. We are witnessing a piece of art being created that doesn't last. And we are sharing an experience with other people.

"Which," he adds, "is something we don't do enough of these days."

He rests his case.

Lam has gained a degree of notoriety in the concert world as the former corporate attorney who traded in his lawyer's license for a baton.

That baton is about to be wielded on behalf of the Illinois Symphony Orchestra courtesy of Lam's newest role as its music director ... the fourth in ISO history (Kenneth Kiesler, Karen Lynne Deal and, most recently, Alastair Willis, preceded him on the podium).

The Hong Kong native was 35 when he made the life decision to leave the lucrative practice of law for something less financially certain but more soulfully fulfilling.

As he has recalled, "I originally wanted to go to college to study the violin, but my parents said, 'No, do the violin as a hobby, do something else to make a living.'"

Ever the good son, Lam followed their advice, ending up at Cambridge University, where he studied economics and law, earned his degree and spent the next decade as a globetrotting lawyer specializing in international finance.

He remembers the moment when he decided to leave it all behind as an epiphany of sorts.

"It was a Sunday morning, around 3 a.m.," he begins. "We were negotiating in a smoke-filled corporate room. I remembering being about ready to black out from the smoke."

Instead of blacking out, Lam took a bolder step. "I stood up, I looked at my boss, and I said, 'Clive ... I've had enough.' "

He got no objections, sustained or otherwise.

"The funny thing is, after the meeting, when I was back in my office, tidying up, all of my colleagues came in to congratulate me."

With that blessing as added assurance, Lam packed up and headed to the United States and Baltimore's Peabody Institute to spend a year deciding if his love of music would be above the law, so to speak. 

"I thought, maybe if you do this for a year, you'll have a good time, then go back to practicing law. But a lot of things clicked and moved very quickly."

Conducting music, not performing it, was now his passion. ("After 10 years of law, it's the only thing these fingers could do now," he laughs.)

A dozen years and twice as many resume achievements later, he has no regrets of changing his course on the brink of smoke-choked middle age. 

"You know, I'm the luckiest person in the world," he muses on this rainy autumn morning, just weeks away from stepping onto the ISO podium for the season opener (Oct. 27 in Bloomington, Oct. 28 in Springfield, with a concert bill that includes Smetana's The Bartered Bride: Overture, Bartók's Piano Concerto No. 3 and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5).

"Music was my hobby ... every spare minute of my life was devoted to it," he says of what exclusively occupied his spare time during his globetrotting life as a corporate attorney.

While his courtroom-weary colleagues were out spending their precious free time "playing tennis or Mahjong, or drinking and eating sushi," Lam was off on his own, listening to or playing chamber music with a community orchestra (besides the violin, he plays piano and sings ... all skills that have taken a firm back seat to conducting).

It's a dozen years on now, and that spare-time hobby has moved to the forefront, in every way possible.

In addition to his new role with the ISO, which he describes as a "perfect fit" for him, Lam is in his third season as music director of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra in South Carolina, and his ninth season as resident conductor of the famed Brevard Music Center in North Carolina.

There's more to occupy the spare time that no longer exists, including his 16th year as artistic director for Hong Kong Voices, a chamber choir based in his homeland.

He says it again: "Very few people are as lucky as me." 

There remains a link between his two careers, he notes, that has paid off in the second half of his professional life.

"As a conductor, your instruments are the 80 people in front of you, and in the same way a lawyer has to deal with people and be organized about presenting his case, you have to step up to the podium and convince this group of people to give their best and share your vision of how the music can go."

As a Hong Native who was educated in England and who now works in the United States, Lam is more aware than ever of music's universality, it's great power to, as he says, "do things."

"For people to experience the music or be a part of it, they don't have to speak my language," he says. "But we all feel the same way."

In a world increasingly divided, tapping into that common ground has become more a priority than ever, he adds.

"For that precious moment when we're on stage before an audience, we're all in touch with something very beautiful ... something that becomes part of the human condition.

"That what's so exciting about this; that's what's so very special. It's through music that you can really bring people together."


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