When Brad Wong retired from overseeing the School of Music at Western Michigan University in 2020, he didn’t plan to wade back into those administrative waters.
“I was happy being very relaxed,” Wong, 67, admits with a laugh. But after David Baldwin, former director of Fontana Chamber Arts, became ill and could no longer run the music series, Wong, who was serving on Fontana’s board of directors, was approached about taking the role.
“It wasn’t on my radar,” Wong says. “Even when we started talking about needing someone to replace David, I never thought, ‘Oh, I can do that’ or ‘I want to do that.’ I just thought, ‘OK, who can I recommend?’ So, they did have to convince me a little bit.”
Wong became Fontana’s director in May but had been involved as part of Fontana for more than 40 years. His late wife, Betsy, was the artistic administrator for the organization until she died in 2017.
“Accepting the position was really a labor of love — from my love of chamber music as a medium, my love for Fontana as an organization, my wife’s connection to it, and my love for the Kalamazoo community,” Wong says.
How did you get your start in music?
In our school’s band program (Wong grew up in Roseville, north of Detroit), everybody started learning to play song flute in fourth grade. At midyear, if you wanted to then try a band instrument, you could do that. My brother was a year older, and he was playing saxophone. I remember going to a school assembly and seeing him in the band playing “Jingle Bells,” which I thought was the greatest thing I ever heard. I didn’t find out until later that they weren’t even playing an arrangement. They were all just playing the melody. But, to me, part of it was my brother, and part of it was hearing live instruments.
When it became my turn to select an instrument, of course I wanted to do saxophone, because that’s what he did. And he said, “No, we already have a saxophone at home. Why don’t you do clarinet?”
When I said I wanted the clarinet, they screened me to make sure my mouth and hands and everything would work for that. And it just turns out that it fit. It just was natural to me. The teacher would send notes home to my parents saying, “Brad is doing great. He should take private lessons.”
I played my first solo in sixth grade for a community meeting, and I was hooked. I knew that music was what I wanted to do. Even though we didn’t have a strong music program in our schools, they did sponsor students to go to Interlochen Center for the Arts for various summer camps. I went to the two-week program, which led to me going to the eight-week program. That led me to doing my last two years of high school at the Interlochen Arts Academy, and that led me to the University of Michigan as a clarinet major.
How did you end up in Kalamazoo?
I finished my bachelor’s degree and was looking for a graduate program. One of U of M’s two clarinet teachers had passed away, and they hired David Shifrin to replace her. I remember his audition. He started playing a baroque transcription because there are not original baroque pieces for the clarinet. His total approach to the clarinet was so different than 99 percent of the people out there. It was gorgeous, so I stayed to work with him and finished in a year.
I moved to Detroit and was playing in an orchestra that acted as the resident orchestra for the Michigan Opera Theater. I joined a wind quintet, and we went on a tour of Italy and did a year residency in the Dominican Republic. In 1983, I got a job as a professor of music at WMU, which felt like the next step for me. Coming to Kalamazoo, I had no idea how long I would stay. It didn’t take long for me to discover that it was the perfect school of music for me to be affiliated with. It just had the right feel.
What plans do you have for Fontana?
David (Baldwin) had so many international connections that he could bring in world-class artists, which was amazing for Kalamazoo. I don’t have those connections, but what I felt like I could bring was to engage more in the community.
Beyond just presenting world-class chamber music, what can we do to enrich the community beyond that?
It’s been my mission to get back to Fontana’s roots of presenting local performers more in the community. I don’t want to diminish the level of concerts that Fontana is currently presenting, but I am looking for opportunities to hire local musicians to get them to play for Art Hop or in senior facilities and schools and things like that.
There’s also a group of arts organizations that want to bring back the Bravo competition, where local students play for jurors and can then be selected to play in a concert. The competition ended because of the pandemic, and my hope is that it could be a good outreach initiative that can live at Fontana, so stay tuned.
— Interview by Marie Lee, edited for length and clarity