Q&A: Carolyn Kuan

Hartford Symphony Orchestra's first woman music director/conductor wants to bring the world to Connecticut's doorstep.


What becomes a legend most? If we’re talking about the Hartford Symphony Orchestra (HSO), then rising star CAROLYN KUAN, 34—newly appointed as the first woman music director/conductor in the organization's 68-year history—may just be the perfect match. For the premiere of the symphony’s 2011-12 Masterworks concert series, Oct. 20-23, she’s chosen a program featuring Mahler’s breathtaking Symphony No. 1 (“Titan”) and Beethoven’s  bold Piano Concerto No. 2. For more info on Hartford Symphony Orchestra’s 2011-12 season, call (860) 244-2999 or visit hartfordsymphony.org.

The October concert is your "official" debut as music director/conductor for the Hartford Symphony. Will you now be overseeing all the music series, or just the main ones?

As music director, I oversee all the music activities of the orchestra. It's a lot of programming.

Let's talk about the "Masterworks" series. Why did you choose the pieces you did for the debut concert?

If you look at a lot of major orchestras, Mahler's Symphony No. 1 is often the opening or closing piece. It sends the message that this is a first-class orchestra. I think a lot of people may not know that about the Hartford Symphony, that it really is an excellent orchestra.

Most importantly, Mahler's First Symphony is a fantastic piece. That really is the most important reason. Not that there aren't a lot of fantastic pieces that I love. I think he wrote it in his 20s, so he was very young. And if you do a bit of research, you find this quote: "A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything." This piece contains a lot of different elements: The third movement borrows from the children's song "Frère Jacques," though he turned it into a minor key. And it includes a klezmer section. He was doing a lot of things you weren't supposed to do; really pushing the envelope.

In most compositions, the first movement tends to be really serious, the second movement slow and beautiful, the third movement scherzo—kind of jokey, fun. Mahler switches that a bit. The first movement is actually almost an introduction to the symphony; it starts slowly then builds. It has a lot of drama and a lot of different emotions—people talk about it as if its almost an autobiography. You can almost see him growing up, taking his place in the world and communicating how he feels about the world. He loved nature, for one thing. It's sort of simple, and fascinating.

The Beethoven piece is another wonderful piece. The main reason for playing that is I really believe in connecting with the next generation, in terms of both education and giving young artists the opportunity to play with the orchestra. Our soloist, Behzod Abduraimov, is fantastic; he's 21 years old, but he's already being represented by a major European management company. So, I'd love for Hartford to have the reputation for . . . if you come to our concert, this is the next generation of great artists. And this is where you'll find them first.

It's kind of like a mission statement in one concert. Is there a theme to the "Masterworks" season as a whole?

There's a lot of different ideas floating in there; the main goal is to offer a great variety of concerts. I think for an orchestra like Hartford, where it really is one of the best regional orchestras around, it's our responsibility to share a lot of great music with the region. For the first time, we'll be doing a beatbox concerto, featuring Fujiko's Fairy Tale by Jan Mikael Vainio. I'm sure no one else has ever done this within a 100-mile radius. The artist, Shodekeh, lives in Baltimore; I saw his work when I was a student there. I think the audience will have a blast. It'll be different, but I think it will be very exciting.

If there's a theme carried out throughout the season, I think it will in many ways be "community," in the sense of, how can the symphony really be an integral part? It's a thought I'm constantly having as I take over as music director. Our second concert is a collaboration with Yale Opera. More and more, you're going to see me look for opportunities to work with other local organizations. At our free September gala concert, I invited Simsbury High School music organizations. I'm also hoping to organize a "come join us, open to the public" community choir.

For the January concert, we're leaving one slot open. We'd like to have the community write in and express what they'd like to hear with the beatboxing piece and Brahms' 1. Like Beethoven's 5th, the Brahms piece is as traditional as it gets. Those two are very much the meat and potatoes of classical repertoire. So I can't wait to hear what people think we should play as an overture. I'm hoping there will be some interesting discussion or debate about what pieces are proposed.

Also, Gerard Schwarz is coming with his son this season. Schwarz was my musical director at Seattle Symphony, and his son Julian is a wonderful young cellist who I think is really going places. I would really love to see that night be a father-son evening, with fathers and sons coming together, or even grandfathers and grandsons.

As music director, do you feel you should also be physically visible in the community?

Yes, I think so. We're looking at various opportunities for me to give public talks. I've met with the mayor and various community leaders, which led to city support for our opening gala in Bushnell Park last month.

Do you have any favorite places in Hartford yet?

I've spent time at all of the restaurants downtown, but haven't really branched out. Now, there's a big push for downtown revitalization—I'd like us to do all we can to help and be a partner in that.

Will you be a full-time resident of the city?

I live in an airplane, actually! [laughs] I'm supposed to go to Taiwan tomorrow for four days, then I'm flying back to LA for five, then I'm flying to New Zealand. So I'll be on the road three weeks. That gives you an idea. I'll be spending a lot of time in Hartford, but really, I conduct around the world. It's important for me to know what's going on everywhere else and bring ideas back to Hartford, but also for me to bring Hartford to the rest of the world. I was in Hong Kong a couple of months ago, and people there were asking me about the Symphony. It feels important to be an ambassador for Connecticut.

This area feels as much home to me as any other place does. I went to high school in western Massachusetts, to the prep school Northfield Mount Hermon. Then I went to Smith College. I joke that I actually live at Bradley International Airport. If I were to handpick a single orchestra for which to be the first woman music director, this would be it. There's a lot of potential and I'm really excited about the future.

I talked to Jill Abramson recently, who's now the first woman executive editor of The New York Times. And we discussed this whole experience of being the first woman in any position, whether too much is made of it or not. Do we make too much of being the "first woman" to do something?

First of all, I think that at some point we won't be able to say that anymore. It will have all been done. I can't say I'm the first woman conductor of a major orchestra, because that's already been done, certainly.

But I think being the first woman should be celebrated, though personally, I don't dwell on it. I tell this story about when I was a student, one of my teachers took me aside and said, "Carolyn, you're very talented, but you have three strikes against you: first, you're a woman; second, you're very young and third, you're Asian." I replied, "Well, at least one of those will change." I can't do anything about who I am. So, for the most part I don't think about it.

What kinds of skills are required to be an effective conductor, more specifically?

As conductor, you need to be a really good musician, and you have to be able to interpret a piece of music. How do you get inside the music's head? How do you interpret great loss or sadness? In some ways, you almost have to have lived it . . . perhaps that's why they say, as conductors get older, they get more seasoned. It's life experience. 

The conductor's main job is really to serve the composer. How do you bring a piece of music to life? You really have to get inside the composer's head. It really involves knowing a lot about the composer and the genre. And knowing a lot about each of the instruments. I don't play them all, but you have to know about them in order to communicate with other people.

Essentially, a conductor is a leader, so tremendous leadership skills are also needed. You're trying to convince 100 other people to go with your vision. When Arturo Toscanini conducted, his style was, "Do it my way or get out!" [laughs] You can't do that anymore. Back then, there was no musicians' union. I think now, it's much more of a collaborative experience. I really think of what I do as making music with the musicians.

What is rewarding about conducting, for you? Why do you like it?

For me, it's the music. It's the emotions that come when you listen to a fantastic piece. It's almost a high—an emotional high. Music makes you happy; it makes you sad. It moves you. It's magical. On good nights you feel like you're one with the musicians, and they're one with the audience. Everyone is sort of experiencing something together. That magic spark is why most of us do it.

It always amazes me when people seem indifferent to music.

It's very interesting. I don't think people are indifferent exactly, they just don't know . . . I remember seeing a recent "Harry Potter" movie, the one where Dumbledore died. And I've read all the books, so I knew what was going to happen, but when that moment came it was very emotional, I started crying. I remember thinking, "This is so silly"; I knew he was going to die. And it wasn't like the scene was fantastically well staged. So, why was I so emotional? I realized, it was the music at that point. If you watched that scene without the music, I would bet most people wouldn't have that reaction. We say, "People don't care about music" . . . the thing is, they do. I think it's our job to pull people in. Because people respond to music; think of 9/11 when you continually heard Barber's Adagio. It's there, you just have to draw it out, help them learn that this is something they'd enjoy if they really gave it a try.

I understand you're a fan of many forms of music, but what about rock 'n' roll?

[Laughs] I used to listen to Chinese rock 'n' roll! Obviously, I'm not American, though, so . . . One of the things that's very popular to do in my hometown of Taiwan is kareoke, actually. There's kareoke on every other block, like there are Starbucks in New York City. I listen to a lot of different kinds of music, but oftentimes it's classical.

Have you ever written any pieces yourself?

I haven't done any composing since college, although once upon a time I aspired to be a composer. A lot of conductors, as they get older, return to it. Leonard Bernstein was probably our last great composer/conductor. There are a lot of conductors out there who still compose, but it's certainly not the norm.

Finally, I know you've been closely involved with  Life: A Journey Through Time, a multimedia piece that grew out of Frans Lanting's exhibit of wildlife photography and features the music of Philip Glass. Any plans to bring that to Hartford?

I'd like to; we'll see what happens. It's a tremendous project, you can't call it a piece, because it has so many dimensions to it. This relates to my belief that symphonies should do more than just play music. It's important to raise awareness, and when we can, look at some of the bigger issues; the environment and conservation being my pet concerns.

Q&A: Carolyn Kuan

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