Q&A with Music Director candidate Perry So

Guest conductor Perry So makes his debut in Grand Rapids on March 18-19 to lead your Grand Rapids Symphony in Beethoven’s “Emperor” Piano Concerto No. 5 among other works. 

A frequent guest conductor across five continents, Perry So is a candidate to become the next music director of the Grand Rapids Symphony. 

The native of Hong Kong leads your Grand Rapids Symphony in Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 in C major, a “great musical novel that encompasses enormous ranges of emotions and settings,” according to So.   

Guest pianist Martin Helmchen joins the program for Beethoven’s final piano concerto with its “exhilarating cycles of uplift and inner reflection,” according to So. 

The eighth concert of the 2015-16 Richard and Helen DeVos Classical Series opens with “Supernova” by contemporary French composer Guillaume Connesson. “Connesson’s music combines driving, urban rhythms with a delightfully imaginative use of the orchestra that hearkens back to Debussy and Ravel,” according to So. 

An inaugural Dudamel Conducting Fellow at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Perry So recently concluded four years with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra as associate conductor, where he appeared with pianist Lang Lang in an internationally televised celebration of the 15th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to China. Perry So has toured led major orchestra from London to Seoul and from Vancouver to Milwaukee as well as in the countries of Japan, Israel and Russia. He has toured with the New Zealand Symphony, the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra, and the Zagreb Philharmonic, the latter in a historic series of concerts in capitals of former Yugoslav countries. Perry So graduated from Yale University with a degree in Comparative Literature, where he began studies in conducting. He later studied with Gustav Meier at the Peabody Conservatory of Music. 

  

Here's more on Perry So:

Q - You were awarded two prizes at the Fifth International Prokofiev Conducting Competition in 2008. What was your reaction to winning not only first prize but a special prize as well? How has the victory affected your career? 

I was incredibly honored and humbled by both prizes! I had been conducting for a decade prior to that, but the Prokofiev Competition was my introduction to the world of great orchestras and great concert halls. In retrospect the prizes served as a warm welcome into a long, storied tradition of Russian music-making, and the expectation that I would contribute to it in an ever-so-small way. The competition led to some exciting opportunities. One of the greatest benefits has been invitations to do fascinating, off-the-beaten-track Russian repertoire, most recently an early Prokofiev ballet for broadcast by the BBC. 

Q - You grew up in Hong Kong. How did growing up in Asia shape your understanding of an art form that originated in the Western world? 

Hong Kong was quite the melting pot when I grew up there. We had musicians from all over the English-speaking world, not least of all two inspirational music teachers from England who gave me as strong a foundation in music as I could have received anywhere. My schools there provided terrific instruction in world literature, languages and history, and we developed a hunger for adventure, possibly because we never quite forgot that we were at the “ends of the earth.” Europe held a special place in our imagination as a result of the colonial influence, and for me this combination came together in a strong desire to discover the broadest extent of what European culture had to offer. I’m particularly grateful for this background as it taught me never to be doctrinaire about art, and to be constantly open to new perspectives. If you travel a little further you will always find a different, equally interesting way of doing something, and that searching nature has been central to my musical life. 

Q - You spent your undergraduate years at Yale studying Comparative Literature. What made you realize you wanted to pursue conducting? 

Music and literature have never been entirely separate pursuits for me. That’s why I’m so drawn to Robert Schumann, a composer deeply involved in both worlds his entire life. There wasn’t really a single moment when I suddenly realized that I wanted to pursue conducting; during high school and college I explored both interests, learned a lot about my own abilities in the process and began to see that I could best apply them as a collaborative musician. I still study literature for pleasure, in order to deepen the context and texture of my musical understanding.   

Q - You’re known for your adventurous programming. How important is it that a symphony orchestra has a wide repertoire? 

For me, repertoire is an atlas of the mind… The ideas and emotions we communicate come out of our engagement with the musical world the composer has given us. This is why I’m drawn to explore the works of local composers wherever I go. Entering the musical imagination of someone who lives in the community prompts me to learn much more about the specific audience and the musical culture of a city and country than I otherwise would have. On the other hand, being able to draw regularly on a broad range of music from different countries and different periods of history helps us think constantly about what our technical and expressive limits are, and how we can challenge ourselves to step beyond those limits. In my experience, an orchestra that delights in a broad range of styles is an orchestra that is open-minded, that can bring a sense of adventure to familiar pieces, and that can get on board with different ways of doing things. 

Q - As a young conductor just 33 years old, it’s early in your career. Do you have a long-term goal in your musical career and how might the Grand Rapids Symphony fit into those plans? 

It is such a huge privilege to call this my work. In my ideal career, every time I step on stage, whether in rehearsal or performance, we are doing something deeply meaningful and transformative together. That is not simply a musical challenge, and I constantly reappraise my ideas about music and expand the scope of my ambitions for what music can accomplish. From my earliest musical experiences I’ve never been drawn to technical wizardry for its own sake; I’ve always been most inspired by the musicians who have led me to emotional and intellectual insights through what they do. I happen to believe that fidelity to what the composer has written is our first step towards an honest reckoning with what music can do. But the subsequent steps are uncharted and require an unceasing search for meaning. I’m hoping to find partners for these next steps – the Grand Rapids Symphony if I’m lucky!  – and to challenge each other to be the best musicians we can be for our time. 

Q - What is something you like to do in your spare time outside of music?   

I’m a keen cook, and my wife tells me I can sometimes take the kitchen as seriously as I take the podium. I’ll also be running my third half-marathon in a few months, hopefully working my way up towards a full marathon sometime in the near future.   

Q - What are you most excited about for your visit to Grand Rapids?  

We have an exciting program planned and the first thing on my mind is what will no doubt be a stimulating week with your wonderful orchestra. We have family friends who grew up in Grand Rapids, and I'm excited to finally get to visit the wonderful city I’ve heard so much about over the years.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 7:00 AM

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