Since the beginning of the year, they've made stops in Munich, Seoul, Charleston, New York City, Milan, New York and Seoul again, Taipei, Paris, and, yet again, New York and Seoul. Coming up in the fall are tours of Australia, Italy and China, as well as Bangkok, Singapore and Seoul.
"We're nomads," Bundit Ungrangsee said.
That's what life is like if you are one of the world's up-and-coming conductors. The appearances listed above have been as a guest conductor. But Ungrangsee recently accepted a position with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra that will require him to be there 20 to 24 weeks each year, so that will cut into his travel schedule somewhat.
Still, he said, if you want to achieve high levels of success in this business, you have to be on the go a lot. "The more you work, the more you get seen and the more work you get. It feeds on itself."
For the 1999-2000 season and summer series, Ungrangsee was the associate conductor of the Utah Symphony. "That was my first big break."
He liked being in Utah and working with Keith Lockhart, he said, "but I was doing too much pops, and that was not what I really wanted."
While he was in Utah, Ungrangsee met and married Mary Jane Jones, and they now have a 15-month-old daughter, Narissa. "That makes traveling more challenging," Ungrangsee said. They were recently back in Utah, visiting Many Jane's mother, who lives in Provo.
"We love coming back here."
Ungrangsee is a native of Thailand, a country, he said, where becoming a professional musician is almost unheard of.
He started out playing the classical guitar. "I was falling in love with it. And I realized I would have to be a musician to be happy. But what kind? I knew the guitar would not take me where I wanted to go. The repertoire is so limited. There's no Brahms or Mahler."
When Ungrangsee was 18, Zubin Mehta came to town. "I saw him conduct. And I thought, 'Wow! That's what I want to be in charge of all those sounds.' I knew I had to pursue conducting." His family required him to get two degrees so he would have a fall-back option. He has a degree in business and a master's degree in music from the University of Michigan.
After Utah, Ungrangsee became first the associate conductor and then the principal guest conductor of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra in South Carolina. In 2002 he was named laureate and co-winner of the Maazel-Vilar International Conductors' Competition at Carnegie Hall, and that led to a two-year mentorship/assistantship with Lorin Maazel that has opened doors around the world.
When they are not on the road, the Ungrangsees have a "semi-residence" in Paris. Europe and Asia are where the classical music scene is most vigorous these days, he said. "I do a concert in Japan or Korea, and the people go crazy. The audience is young, lots of people in their teens, as opposed to America where audiences are older. During the concert, you'll hear them go 'Wow' when something great happens. There's an audible energy from the audience that's incredible. And the performers are treated like rock stars. Lines of people wait after for autographs."
"It's very exciting for us to be part of that," Mary Jane said.
What has also been fun, Ungrangsee said, is that Mary Jane fulfilled an LDS mission to Thailand, so she speaks Thai fluently. "I've been away so long, I now speak it with an accent. Mary also grew up in Seoul, so she speaks Korean very well. People wonder why she speaks the languages better than I do."
In Seoul, the government has made a commitment to develop a world-class orchestra. It's so refreshing, he said, to work where you don't have to worry about all the financial problems that seem to plague American orchestras. "It is exciting to be part of the building process. In a few years, this orchestra is going to be making a lot of noise."
Ungrangsee said he has also enjoyed the variety he gets from being a free-lance guest conductor. "The orchestras have all been very receptive, very professional."
In 2003, Ungrangsee was invited to guest-conduct a Mormon Tabernacle Choir performance. "That was a wonderful experience. I gave them a downbeat, and I've never heard such a huge sound. It almost blew me off the stage. It was so beautiful."
Last month, the government of Thailand honored Ungrangsee for his accomplishments on the international stage with its National Artist award. That's a great honor, he said, especially for Thailand to recognize him for classical music.
Eventually, Ungrangsee would like to settle down and be the principal conductor of a major orchestra, but for now, he enjoys the nomadic life. It's a great way to see the world and a great way to make a living, he said. "The job is never boring."The more you study great music, the more it becomes new every time."
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