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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.