Hong Kong-born conductor Perry So debuts with Grand Rapids Symphony

Conductor Perry So was born and raised in Hong Kong, and it’s there that he first heard of the Grand Rapids Symphony, believe it or not. 

Musicians in the Hong Kong Symphony, who happen to have Michigan connections, spoke well of the orchestra that So conducts this week. 

“A young, energetic orchestra that really wants to get it right,” So recalled his former colleagues telling him. “A work ethic is everything. It’s a quality I prize above all else.” 

The well-traveled conductor with a flourishing career on three continents leads the Grand Rapids Symphony on Friday and Saturday in music of Beethoven and Schumann for the orchestra’s Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series. 

Perry So is the seventh of eight guest conductors appearing in DeVos Performance Hall, all of whom are candidates to become the next music director of the Grand Rapids Symphony.

So’s past two seasons have included performances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and debuts with the Cleveland Orchestra and with several leading orchestras in China. 

Born in 1982 in Hong Kong, So grew up speaking both English and Cantonese from birth. He’s a citizen of Hong Kong who also holds a British passport because Hong Kong formerly was a British colony until it was returned to Chinese control in 1997. 

“There’s a struggle for the soul of Hong Kong,” he said. “One of the fault lines is language.” 

Initially, So spoke British English. Later, he studied at the American School in Taipei. He would go on to earn his bachelor’s degree in comparative literature from Yale University.

Though he’s the first professional musician in his family, he grew up in a musical household. His mother taught music at the middle and high school levels. 

“Between home and school and church, I was surrounded by music,” he said. “Especially Bach and Mozart.” 

So spent his first five professional years on the podium with the Hong Kong Symphony where he served as assistant, then associate conductor. He was the first local resident on the orchestra’s roster of conductors for half a generation, which quickly made him a poster boy for the ensemble.  

“It very quickly turned into filming ads for the Hong Kong Tourist Board,” he said with a laugh.   

Music directors came only for rehearsals and performances. As a resident, So was involved in a lot of outreach into schools and neighborhoods, not to mention work with arts councils and tourist boards. “I found myself doing magazine interviews three and four times a week,” he recalled. 

Today, he’s a resident of New Haven, Connecticut, where his wife,  Anna, originally from Iowa, is finishing her doctoral degree in Russian History at Yale University. The couple anticipates moving to Boston next year where his wife will be a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University. 

A pianist with extensive studies in historic keyboards, such as harpsichord, So also plays violin and viola, though not professionally. 

“It’s a big help in being a conductor.” An inaugural Dudamel Conducting Fellow at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, So last November stepped in as a substitute, with two weeks’ notice, to lead the Houston Orchestra in a performance of “Spring Festival Overture” by Li Huanzhi, part of an emerging generation of Chinese composers. 

“They will write even greater works in the years to come,” So said. So will lead the Grand Rapids Symphony in Beethoven’s “Emperor” Piano Concerto with German pianist Martin Helmchen, who So describes as “incredibly congenial as a Beethovian.” 

So particular enjoys Beethoven’s fifth and final piano concerto. 

“The fourth (piano concerto) is finicky in a way the fifth is not. It’s so forthright,” he said. “Beethoven, to me, he was looking for something he already knew worked.” 

A student of comparative literature, So considers himself a champion of the symphonies of Robert Schumann, who was a writer and critic as well as a composer. 

“I find them incredibly lyrical and incredibly confessional,” he said. 

One symphonic tradition in the German-speaking world can be traced from Haydn and Mozart to Beethoven and then to Brahms. But another developed in the 19th century from Schubert to Schumann to Mahler, all of whom devoted much of their musical output to art song.  

“Schumann makes a great effort to bring that to the symphonic form,” So said. Schumann, in particular, sometimes is criticized for poorly orchestrating his long-range structures.  

“But the orchestration sometimes can be incredibly effective,” So said. 

So is looking forward to leading the Grand Rapids Symphony for the first time in a work by contemporary French composer Guillaume Connesson titled “Supernova.” So recalls being “absolutely captivated” by Connesson’s music, which emphasizes space leading into colorization. Connesson’s “Supernova” was inspired by a painting by Wassily Kandinsky, but So finds in it the presence of a 21st century energy.  

“What you’d hear walking down the streets of Paris,” he said. “We’re always creating for specific audiences at specific times, even as we reach for the universal as we do so.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 8:00 AM
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