By Lee Yong-sung
In March 2004, baby girl Ungrangsee was born to her proud and happy parents in Charleston, South Carolina. By her first birthday, the little girl’s passport had been stamped multiple times with entry visas from the UK, Italy, Thailand, South Korea, Vietnam, Germany, France, Taiwan and of course, periodic returns to the States. By the time she is two, the number of stamps will have likely doubled, and will include entries from new places like Malaysia, Turkey, Australia, New Zealand, China, Denmark and more.
“People ask my wife all the time, where we actually live,” says conductor Bundit Ungrangsee, father to the well-traveled little girl. “It’s not an easy question to answer, so she usually just says we are nomads who live out of our suitcases.”
Bundit left his position with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra in 2004 to pursue the next step in his global career as a symphonic conductor. “It was something of a leap of faith to leave a place where our little family had an established home and a steady paycheck to dive into the unknown world of full-time guest conducting,” says Bundit. “I don’t know how many wives would let their husbands do something like this. But so far the risk is paying off. My schedule is completely full, and my family is able to travel with me. There are still so many things I want to do, so many more goals to achieve, but I really couldn’t ask for more.”
Ungrangsee family, July 2005
How it Began
Back in 1988, a teenaged classical guitarist sat in a darkened auditorium in Bangkok. He knew he wanted to be a professional musician, and had been pondering for months how he would ever make a living as a guitarist.
Classical music had seeped under his skin in a way he never expected. He had started learning guitar at age 14 to emulate his rock and roll heroes like the Beatles and (strangely enough) Ozzy Osbourne. But when his guitar teacher insisted on giving him classical repertoire, he found that the music of Bach and Villa-Lobos held more appeal than he could have ever imagined. Since then, classical music had been calling to him, and he was searching for a way to answer that call.
That night, the lights on the dim stage began to brighten on the more than 100 orchestra musicians who were patiently waiting. Then it happened. A door opened and the Maestro, clothed elegantly in a black tux, confidently strolled on stage. Zubin Mehta, one of the world’s most charismatic conductors, took his place at the front of the New York Philharmonic for their surprise concert in Bangkok, and his performance changed the life of that young classical guitarist forever.
Just 16 years later, that same New York Philharmonic invited a young Thai conductor with a rapidly expanding career to make his debut with the orchestra that had inspired him in the first place. Bundit Ungrangsee’s unique talent has taken him far, and there is still much that he hopes to accomplish.
“I have been very fortunate,” Bundit says. “I love music, and as a conductor I am able to make a living doing something I love, surrounded by great music from great creative minds. It is a pleasure to study great repertoire. My job is never boring and there is always another challenge to tackle.”
Bundit with Maestro Zubin Mehta in 2003
Bundit now enjoys a burgeoning career as a guest conductor who is in demand all over the world. In 2005 alone, he will have engagements on four continents, including a new position with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra – which was so impressed with Bundit’s work in a guest conducting appearance earlier this year they made him a Principal Guest Conductor for the next three seasons. Over the next few years, Bundit will be working closely with newly appointed music director Myung-Whun Chung to help the SPO become one of the world’s great orchestras.
“Asia is set to become a center for great classical music,” Bundit believes. “Not only is there some incredible talent coming from Asia, but the audience for classical music in Asia is young and enthusiastic. I have been shocked and happy to see young people at concerts really getting into the music, even reacting with gasps and applause when soloists do something especially difficult or beautiful. After the concerts they want autographs from the performers, and treat us like we are rock stars. That almost never happens elsewhere in the world. It is very exciting.”
Finding His Way
About the same time that Bundit’s interest in guitar began to grow, another of his needs was met by the inspiration of a friend. Having grown up in a country rich with Buddhist tradition, where Buddhism influences everything from government to family relationships, Bundit always felt innately that something was missing from his life.
“Since I was a teenager, I knew three things in my heart,” Bundit says. “First, I knew there had to be just one God. In Thailand, people worship spirits in everything, even in nature and inanimate objects. I never believed that statues or trees could help me. I knew that there could only be one God. Second, I knew that God would have to be alive today, otherwise how could he help humans? Finally, I knew that God would have to be perfect. An imperfect God just doesn’t make sense. That is one reason why I never felt comfortable worshiping the Buddha, who was just a man, and never claimed to be anything more than just a man.”
At the age of 14, Bundit met a classmate who was to become one of his closest friends. Tavee and Bundit attended the same Bangkok private school, and although Tavee was a few years older the two quickly became close friends. A devout Christian, Tavee noticed his friend’s struggles with Buddhism, and introduced him to a belief in Jesus Christ.
“From the moment I heard about Christ, I knew Christianity was what I had been looking for,” says Bundit. “It made so much sense, and it felt right in my heart.” After attending church with Tavee, Bundit converted to Pentecostal Christianity at the age of 14. He was then and remains today the only Christian in his entire extended family. “My parents were upset when I first told them of my decision to become Christian,” he says. “As the oldest son, they had certain expectations of me, like becoming a Buddhist monk for a few years, which most boys in Thailand do at some point to honor their parents. But they saw I was serious, and that I actually was becoming a better and happier person, and they were supportive.”
After seeing Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic at age 18, Bundit knew he had found his calling. He immediately began devouring books on conducting – everything from biographies to histories to interviews and videos on famous conductors. By age 20 he had formulated a plan, and left Thailand to continue his university studies overseas. He attended the University of Wollongong, near Sydney, Australia, and completed in three years two separate undergraduate degrees – one in music composition (while taking private conducting lessons on the side) and one in business to satisfy his skeptical parents.
“I was so focused in those days,” Bundit recalls fondly. “I scheduled every minute of my day so that I could accomplish as much as possible. My friends used to laugh at me, but I didn’t care. I had big goals, and knew they would take a lot of hard work to accomplish.” Upon completing both degrees in Wollongong, Bundit was accepted to study with renowned conducting teacher Gustav Meier at the University of Michigan’s graduate program in conducting.
“I was so nave when I started this business, I thought simply getting into Michigan would guarantee my success. I had won one of just two open spots among a field of hundreds and hundreds of applicants to Michigan’s graduate program. Little did I know that the competition was only going to get more and more intense each step of the way.“
While studying at Michigan, Bundit took every opportunity to travel to Europe and study with the world’s great conducting teachers. One of these trips led to him being selected to participate in a conducting masterclass at Carnegie Hall in 1998, with renowned Finnish conducting teacher Jorma Panula. “Meeting Jorma was a breakthrough for me. He helped me in so many ways, both with my conducting technique and in my understanding of music. His teaching technique is very unique, and many people don’t understand him since he hardly speaks when he is teaching. But what he does say is full of meaning, and I learned more from him than probably any other teacher.”
Panula was impressed with Bundit’s potential and invited him to be one of two Conducting Fellows at Tanglewood in 1998, one of the United States’ most prestigious summer music festivals. At that point, Bundit had completed his studies at the University of Michigan, and had already won a position as music director of the Young Musician’s Foundation (YMF) Debut Orchestra in Los Angeles, an excellent position for someone just out of school. During Bundit’s three years with YMF, he also held positions as Assistant Conductor of the Santa Rosa Symphony, and Apprentice Conductor of the Oregon Symphony.
This is the Place
At the conclusion of his tenure with YMF, the Utah Symphony awarded Bundit the position of Associate Conductor, making him one of the youngest conductors to ever hold that position. He began preparations to make the move from Los Angeles to Utah amid warnings from many of his Christian friends to “watch out for those Mormons.” Knowing very little about Mormons or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Bundit’s interest was actually piqued by the warnings, but he didn’t think much else about it in the turmoil of his move to Utah.
Upon his arrival in Salt Lake City in the summer of 1999, Bundit kept himself busy with the Utah Symphony’s demanding schedule, and didn’t think much about religion. Since his conversion to Christianity in Thailand more than a decade earlier, his faith in Christ had only increased, but he had stopped attending services in the Pentecostal church. While he loved Christianity, he felt out of place in the Pentecostal church, and was uncomfortable with their worship style and some of the details of their doctrine.
Enter a young man named John Johnston, a classical music enthusiast and returned missionary living in Salt Lake City. Johnston had served a Laotian speaking mission in California, and since his return had immersed himself in the Lao and Thai communities in Salt Lake City, impressively mastering both languages. A double bass player and lover of music, Johnston read in the newspapers of Bundit’s arrival in Salt Lake with excitement, and set about trying to meet the young Thai maestro. The two quickly became acquainted, and Johnston wasted no time in introducing Bundit to the missionaries.
“When the missionaries started talking about Joseph Smith I could immediately relate,” recalls Bundit. “What he experienced made sense to me. I could understand his confusion. Why would anyone ever make up such a story? Once I started reading the Book of Mormon and heard the rest of what the missionaries had to say, I knew that here was a religion I could really participate in fully, without hesitation.” Within a few months, Bundit had made the decision to be baptized. In April 2000, he was confirmed a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
A New Chapter
About this time, another return missionary who had served in Thailand moved to Salt Lake City and happened to meet Johnston at a mission reunion party. This returned sister was also a musician, and Johnston discovered that she lived just a few blocks from his new friend. Johnston introduced Mary Jane Jones to Bundit at their downtown Salt Lake City ward the following Sunday. Shortly after Bundit was baptized, the two began dating, and nearly a year to the day after his baptism, in April 2001, Bundit and Mary Jane were married in the Salt Lake Temple, sealed by Mary Jane’s grandfather with Johnston standing as one of the witnesses.
Shortly after becoming engaged in June 2000, Bundit and Mary Jane moved from Salt Lake City to Charleston, South Carolina, where Bundit had taken a position as Associate Conductor of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. “People in Utah were shocked that we were moving to a new city together. People in Charleston were shocked that we bothered to rent two apartments, especially the movers that helped us move into both,” says Bundit.
“I was sad to leave Salt Lake City, but the position in Charleston gave me a lot more room for growth,” Bundit says. “My time in Utah was short, but I know that I was there for two very important purposes, to find the Church and to meet my wife. Once both were accomplished it was time to move on, and I found this great position in Charleston.”
These are My Olympics
In spring 2001, a colleague told Bundit about a new conducting competition being organized by Maestro Lorin Maazel, the new music director of the New York Philharmonic and a legend among conductors for his skill and musicianship. Bundit had won and lost a number of competitions over the years, and was skeptical about applying.
“I had given up on competitions,” he remembers. “They always seemed so arbitrary and political. I just wasn’t interested. But my wife insisted that I apply, and even filled out all the paperwork for me. I just signed the application, and she sent it off with a demo video on the very last day. I was shocked when later that summer I got a letter saying that I had been accepted.”
Bundit was to compete in Sydney, one of six regional rounds held all over the world. “I prepared for this competition like it was my Olympics,” recalls Bundit. “I thought that this could be one very big chance to make an impression and get my foot in the door.” Not only did Bundit make a good impression in Sydney, but he also made it to the final round of four, held at Carnegie Hall in September 2002.
“Carnegie Hall – wow. That is really the pinnacle, to get to conduct in Carnegie Hall,” says Bundit. “I remember the first time I was in New York, about ten years ago, I was wandering around the city and really wanted to know how to get to Carnegie Hall. So I asked a man on the street, and he actually said, ‘Practice, practice, practice!'”
“I think I was more nervous than Bundit,” says Mary Jane. “I sat in the balcony with my mom and siblings, who had flown in from Provo especially to see the concert, literally wringing my hands and pacing back and forth. I could see Bundit sitting on stage and he seemed really calm.”
Finally the announcement was made, and all Bundit’s hard work paid off. He and Xian Zhang from China were named co-winners of the competition and were each awarded the first prize of $45,000 and a fellowship with Maestro Maazel.
“The competition opened a lot of doors that otherwise would have remained closed,” says Bundit. Since then, Bundit’s career and reputation as an outstanding guest conductor have steadily been on the rise. He was hired by the New York Philharmonic as a Cover Conductor for the 2003-2005 seasons, and upon completion of his tenure as Associate Conductor of the Charleston Symphony was named that organization’s Principal Guest Conductor for the 2004-2005 season. In the past two years he has conducted orchestras on four continents, including recent concerts with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, Incheon City Symphony Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra of Taiwan, Novi Sad (Serbia) Orchestra, the International Orchestra of Italy and the Philharmonic Orchestra of Arturo Toscanini, including numerous repeat engagements.
Future engagements include an invitation from the New York Philharmonic and concerts with Teatro La Fenice in Venice, the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, Pomeriggi Musicali in Milan, Orchestra Sinfonica Siciliana in Palermo, Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia (including an Asian tour) Malaysian Philharmonic, Queensland Symphony in Australia, Auckland Philharmonia in New Zealand, Victoria Symphony in Canada and Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra in Denmark.
Bundit also conducted the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Orchestra at Temple Square during two of their national broadcasts of Music and the Spoken Word. “Conducting the choir was one of the greatest thrills of my career,” says Bundit. “I gave a downbeat and was almost blown away by the sound. They were great musicians, and I had a great time. I hope to have the privilege of working with them again.”
Conducting the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Orchestra at Temple Square (photo courtesy of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir)
Just recently, the Thai government awarded Bundit the title of “National Artist” in recognition of his global achievements as the first international Thai conductor. Bundit’s mother accepted the award for him at the official Bangkok ceremony, because he was in Seoul conducting a concert that day.
Bundit has conducted several concerts in Bangkok, including one with the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra and another with the International Orchestra of Italy as part of their Asian tour. Each concert was sold out, and Bundit was greeted by many young people in the audience as a national hero.
“It has been gratifying for me to help bring Thailand a little more into the limelight in classical music,” says Bundit. “When people hear I am from Thailand they are always surprised. It’s almost like hearing of a classical musician from Bangladesh or Pakistan. There just aren’t many of us out there. I hope that I can help open doors for other young Thai musicians who might have talent, but don’t know where to go or what to do.”
In the same vein, Bundit hopes that his growing reputation can also help spread the good name of the Church. “My colleagues ask me all the time about our beliefs, especially when they discover that neither Mary nor I drink wine or beer. That always gets their attention. In fact, just the other day a colleague asked me for a copy of the Book of Mormon.”
“We are literally in a different city every three weeks, which means we attend church all over the world,” Bundit adds. “That makes it a little tricky to hold a calling. So Mary and I do what we can to serve in other ways.”