'Instrumentalists have their whole [childhood] and their whole adolescence to study on their instruments, to perfect themselves in its technique," the eminent German conductor Bruno Walter once observed. "But the poor conductor, he cannot do the same. His instrument is this dragon with 80 or 100 heads. And how should he practice on this instrument, which is for the first time at his disposal when he begins his career? So he comes out as naive and a beginner, and this is a disadvantage which he can make up only in years of practice."
Bundit Ungrangsee's story is one of slaying that orchestral dragon--or at least taming it--and its scope is almost epic, involving clashing cultures, world travels, the teaching of gurus and his eventual arrival in Los Angeles four weeks ago. The 26-year-old Thai conductor has been named the new music director of the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra, the accomplished L.A.-based training ensemble for 65 musicians ages 14 to 25. He is also the recipient of a $10,000 YMF/BMI Foundation Inc./Lionel Newman Conducting Study Grant, and today he opens the orchestra's 42nd season, conducting Beethoven's "Leonore" Overture No. 3 and Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony for the first time in public.
Born in Songkhla in southern Thailand, Ungrangsee grew up in Bangkok, where he took up the guitar because he thought it was "cool," but eventually discovered the classical repertory and "became more and more interested in it." He attended a Yamaha music school, though his parents had him earmarked to take over the family wholesale seafood business.
"They thought I was going to pursue music as a hobby," said the affable Ungrangsee, already appearing at home here, lounging on a couch in the Beverly Hills office of the YMF. "But when I started to become serious about it and finally decided to make it my profession, they were very, very against it."
Two experiences cemented his decision. The first was a yearlong visit to the United States, made as an exchange student when he was 17, where he played second violin in an Austin, Texas, high school orchestra, took part in statewide guitar competitions and attended Austin Symphony concerts. The boy from Thailand, where Western classical music has made few inroads, was overwhelmed by the richness of the musical life here.
The second event was a concert given by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Zubin Mehta, on tour in Bangkok. "I just fell in love with the way he conducts," Ungrangsee said, "and I decided I have to become a conductor. I felt I could spend my life doing this." At 18, he saw it both as a way out of the limited repertory of the guitar and the career in the family business he dreaded.
Eight years later, he has an orchestra of his own. Designed to give fledgling conductors the skills they need to compete in the big leagues, the Debut Orchestra music directorship, a three-year position, requires its holder to come up with the orchestra's programs, advise and decide on the overall artistic direction of the ensemble, as well as conduct it and write the program notes. Ungrangsee follows in the footsteps of such internationally known conductors as Myung-Whun Chung, Lawrence Foster and Michael Tilson Thomas.
A panel of musicians headed by the highly regarded conducting teacher Gustav Meier and including conductors Carl St.Clair, JoAnn Falletta and Lucinda Carver chose Ungrangsee from 45 candidates. Carver says that the decision was an easy and unanimous one.
"We felt that he had the most compelling sense of musicality and conviction about what he wanted from the orchestra. He also had a really nice rapport with the orchestra," she said. On the podium, according to Carver, he was "polite, pleasant and demanding. . . . The orchestra sounded notably different when he picked up the baton." The Debut Orchestra musicians, too, gave their vote to Ungrangsee.
The journey to his new position sent him all over the globe in six years. After hearing Mehta, Ungrangsee put aside his guitar and took up piano, thinking it a more suitable instrument for a future conductor. At 20, he left for Australia to study music--and business management, "because my mom wouldn't let me just do music, she just cannot cope"--at Wollongong University near Sydney, eventually earning a bachelor's degree in composition.
Summers were spent traveling to conducting seminars in the Czech Republic; Siena, Italy; and New York City; and to the conservatories of Vienna and Moscow, where he worked with the likes of Yuri Temirkanov, Kurt Masur and Chung. He moved to the United States, studying at the University of Michigan with Meier, and continues there (on leave) as a doctoral candidate with Kenneth Kiesler. With part of the money from his study grant, he will now work privately with retired USC conducting professor Daniel Lewis.