Weekly Update: July 30, 2013

Observing and discovering

The 2012 Cabrillo Festival was Carolyn Kuan’s last as Associate Conductor. But the injury that caused music director Marin Alsop to withdraw from this summer’s festival has returned Kuan, on short notice, to conduct the opening weekend’s orchestra concerts.

Today, the Taiwan native is in demand worldwide. Named music director of the HartfordSteven Laschever Symphony in 2011, and now in her mid-30s, she has already scored successes with the Baltimore, San Francisco, Detroit, Seattle, Milwaukee and North Carolina symphonies; the Florida and Louisville orchestras; the New York City Ballet; and the New York City Opera. International engagements include concerts with the Bournemouth Symphony, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Hong Kong Philharmonic, Orquesta Sinfónica de Yucatán, Residentie Orkest (The Hague), and the Royal Danish Orchestra. Plus she has become something of a spokesperson for both Asian and new music–largely due to Cabrillo–and a recording artist.

In a recent conversation, Kuan explained that her Taiwanese middle school had a sister-school relationship with a high school in Massachusetts, and that, at 14, she spent her summer there, largely to learn English. (She told me that in Taiwan, schooling was all about memorizing, and she was surprised to find teachers in the high school here encouraging students to ask questions and even disagree with them.)

Kuan started playing piano “at age four or five” and though she always loved music it didn’t occur to her to consider becoming a musician until 1998 when she studied conducting at Tanglewood. Even then, and though she had played as a rehearsal piano accompanist, she felt she was still a student. “Conducting music, you learn more about it, discovering what conductors actually do,” she says. Scholarships followed with the specific encouragement to study conducting seriously. An opportunity opened up at the North Carolina Symphony with which she conducted orchestra concerts for 4th-graders “all over the state.”

That became the pivotal moment that set her career on track. “For most of those kids, this was their first opportunity to hear a symphony orchestra,” she explains. “In talking with them about it, I found their experience very moving to me.” It was that moment when she realized conducting was a way she could share her love of music. Still a young person herself, she says, “It’s fantastic to share music with young people.” 

Kuan met Alsop in April, 2003, at Tanglewood, then again that summer at Cabrillo when she took a conducting workshop. “She’s an incredible mentor,” says Kuan. “She would give me ten-minute lessons, but I learned much more by just observing her, the way she worked with the musicians and interacted with the audience.” In 2004, Alsop invited Kuan to become her assistant conductor at Cabrillo, and couple of years later, associate conductor. “For me, the opportunity to work with Marin was invaluable.”

The first goal of preparing the premiere of a new piece is, “get the score as early as possible.” But, she warns, with commissions that’s not always realistic. “It can be very last-minute,” she says. “With five brand new pieces, it’s all very much accelerated.” But having the composers at hand makes a huge difference, even though some of them “don’t always want to talk about it.” She says, “For all conductors, we spend so much time trying to get into the composers’ heads.” Of this Friday’s opening night, Kuan said the Symphony No. 3 by Christopher Rouse (West Coast premiere) “demands your attention.” Of the new Kevin Puts flute concerto, a Festival commission, she says “a feeling of love poured out of the score.”

Festival-goers will recall Huang Ruo’s Shattered Steps heard (with the composer singing) at last year’s Cabrillo Festival. Meanwhile, Kuan is scheduled to conduct his new opera, Dr. Sun Yat-sen, at Santa Fe next year. Kuan wants to get the completed score as soon as possible, but, frustratingly, “it’s not ready yet.” 

Kuan photo by Steven Laschever

This week’s update includes Philip Pearce’s rave over the new Cabrillo Stage production of Oklahoma! on our Theater Page. Also, please visit our Links of Interest page through which you’ll be able to see and hear Timothy Andres as soloist in Mozart’s “Coronation” piano concerto whose solo part he has completely rewritten. Inspired sacrilege? You decide. There are other new links to publications with intriguing ART-icles. And visit our Calendar page, updated weekly and crammed with live music, dance and theater performance events around the Monterey Bay region.

Scott MacClelland, editor