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Carolyn Kuan Final HSO Conductor Candidate

Taiwan-Born Maestro Has Ties To Region, Ideas About Innovating

Jeffrey Johnson

November 28, 2010

The public-involved search for a Hartford Symphony Orchestra music director to succeed Edward Cumming has proved to be surprisingly popular. Audiences have discovered that the orchestra sounds very different with each of the finalists, and debate about which would be the best conductor has been heated. The choice will be announced in January.

After more than a year, this public part of the search process will come to a close when the final candidate, Carolyn Kuan, conducts the orchestra Thursday though next Sunday.

"You probably don't know," Kuan says, "but going to Hartford feels very much like going home for me."

Kuan was born in Taiwan but came to the United States by herself at age 14 to attend Northfield Mount Hermon School in western Massachusetts. After that she attended Smith College in Northampton, Mass. " Bradley International Airport was my airport for eight years," says Kuan, 33..

If chosen to lead the HSO, she intends to move to Hartford. "Music directors have to be a part of the community," she says, "You have to get to know the place. If you don't know your community, how do you know what they need? How can you effect change?"

Kuan has worked with an impressive list of organizations that include the Seattle Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, Baltimore Symphony and New York City Ballet, and she has been a part of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in New York since 2003. She has also with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and the Orquesta Sinfónica de Yucatán.

Her work has taught her many things about how symphonies can be innovative. "One of the reasons I am very excited about [the Hartford Symphony]," says Kuan, "is that I feel like if we work together, this orchestra can be a leader and a model of the new 21st-century orchestra: a highly relevant and change-effecting organization. We are entering an engaged and participatory time. The Hartford Symphony Orchestra has the flexibility to become an orchestra of the 21st century."

"For example," Kuan asked, "can an orchestra address awareness of something like global warming? What if we do a series of concerts that focus somehow on these issues?"

Through collaboration with other local organizations, the HSO could become "a focal point where people can learn and participate," she said. Kuan has been involved with ideas like this before, such as her work with the multimedia production "Life: A Journey through Time," with music by Philip Glass and images by photographer Frans Lanting.

"But also," says Kuan of her more traditional programming inclinations, "if I know I am going to close the season with Mahler 5, why not play some music that informed Mahler 5. Beethoven 5 impacted the way Mahler thought of his own work; Tchaikovsky 5th also. And perhaps the music of Bernstein, who reinvented Mahler. It comes back to the idea of engaging an audience who cares deeply about classical music. You are not just engaging them only through individual concerts but through an entire series of concerts."

Kuan is interested in having audiences read the entire book, rather than only random chapters. "You are then adding to people's lives," she says. "Audiences today are craving something more."

Her program in December will feature music by three great melodicists: Samuel Barber, Tchaikovsky and Mozart.

"Medea," from Barber's Medea suite, uses gestures that complement the Mozart G minor symphony, and the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, to be played by the exciting young pianist Alexander Beyer, is as tuneful as it is virtuosic and dramatic.

The program will close with the Mozart Symphony in G minor; one of the most popular classical works. "Several audience members will likely have the opening tune as their ring tone," says Kuan. "But because the piece is so well known, people don't realize how shocking and how deeply moving it actually is. The opening motive, with its minor seconds, is based on a motive of grief."

"Mozart is creating something quite new, explained Kuan. "He is approaching sound differently. It is as if he was already peeking into romanticism. There is a famous passage that opens the development of the finale, which contains every note of the chromatic scale expect for G, which is the key of the movement."

It is a challenge to make the chamber-music quality of this score come across in live performance.

"In many ways," says Kuan, "Mozart is actually more difficult than something like Mahler, in that Mahler is very particular about tempo markings, dynamic markings. There are even footnotes and long, lengthy explanations about how exactly he heard the music in his head.

"But when you come to something like Mozart, there is hardly any information from Mozart. So even with the dynamics, there is piano and forte. How do you get from piano to forte? How do you get from forte to piano? What tempo do you take? Tempi in Mozart are heavily debated by scholars."

"For us, says Kuan, "it is really trying to figure out how each of the phrases needs to go, because if you just play through it …it's not what Mozart wanted. You really have to have an opinion on how you want it to go, and translate that to the musicians. Mozart is one of the most difficult composers to play well. I am looking forward to it.

"Through these three pieces," says Kuan, "we will get to know one another really well."

CAROLYN KUAN conducts the Hartford Symphony Orchestra Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Dec. 5 at 3 p.m. A pre-concert talk begins an hour before each performance. Alexander Beyer is the feature pianist. The program includes: Barber Selection from Medea, Ballet Suite; Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 and Mozart's Symphony No. 40. Tickets are $33.50 to $68.50, $13.50 for students, $23.50 for under 40 (limited availability, Saturday only). Information: 860-244-2999 or http://www.hartfordsymphony.org.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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