People in the News

Perry So: New Artist of the Month

October 1, 2009 | By Ken Smith
HONG KONG – Times have changed since young assistant conductors sat in the wings waiting for their “Leonard Bernstein” moment. In the case of Perry So, the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s 27-year-old assistant conductor, a recent cancellation notice from music director Edo de Waart (himself a former Bernstein assistant) arrived with enough time for the fliers to be reprinted. This was pretty much business as usual for So, an inaugural Dudamel Conductor Fellow this season, whose career trajectory has been less of a skyrocket than an escalator.

So first came to the Hong Kong Philharmonic last fall, having already won third prize at the 2008 Mitropoulos International Conducting Competition. Shortly after his appointment, he became the youngest conductor ever to win first prize at the International Prokofiev Competition in St. Petersburg. Competence on the podium impresses the judges; the day-to-day grind, however, requires a different skill set. And on the latter count, the young conductor has already become something of a local celebrity on the basis of his unpretentious, no-nonsense manner on stage and his ease in front of the microphone. In media-savvy Hong Kong, So has the distinct advantage of looking younger than his age while often acting older.

Hearing him describe his youth in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taipei, one can still easily picture the curious toddler playing with the settings on his parents’ stereo system. So too fits a common Asian profile: a child of non-professional music lovers starting keyboard training around age four and first experiencing communal music-making at church.

His later education helped mold the precocious talent into more mature musicianship. “I am a huge fan of the undergraduate education I received in the U.S.,” says the Yale University alumnus, who still divides his time between Hong Kong and New Haven. “It allowed me the time and innocence to develop my own ideas, to make loads of mistakes, to muse on the intellectual origins of German Romanticism. Very few places in the world have so much intellectual ferment within a stone’s throw of great music…and I’m afraid that is true of most conservatories as well.”

While studying comparative literature, So channeled his broad musical interests into directing the Saybrook Orchestra and the Opera Theater of Yale College and regularly leading the Yale Collegium Musicum from the harpsichord. Before his Hong Kong appointment, the itinerant So had established an ongoing relationship with the State Hermitage Orchestra of Russia and founded the YUE International Music Festival [] in the Huangshan region of China, originally known as the Yale-China Musical Exchange.

So’s ongoing ties to education made him an obvious choice for the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s Sept. 20 collaboration with the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. For five seasons, De Waart has led coaching sessions with student musicians in his own specialty repertoire, from John Adams to Richard Strauss, culminating in side-by-side performances with Philharmonic musicians. “Project W,” as this season’s venture was billed, fit squarely into the Philharmonic’s recent focus on Wagner.

The first half of the afternoon bore no surprises. So had already been scheduled to open the concert with Stravinsky’s “Firebird” Suite. After intermission, however, came a symphonic distillation of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” originally produced by Henk de Vlieger for the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic during De Waart’s tenure as music director. As if that connection weren’t intimidating enough, De Waart had just opened the orchestra’s season with the “Prelude” and “Liebestod” two weeks before.

No one would ever confuse the two performances—particularly due to the student winds and brass—but overall, the readings conveyed comparable idiomatic grace. Some regrettably unfocused playing in the offstage brass might have derailed a less prepared ensemble, but the damage was contained and Wagner’s music wafted smoothly with no further incident.

“For us, there wasn’t a moment of doubt or hesitation,” the orchestra’s concertmaster John Harding reflected a few days later. “Perry is certainly one of the most naturally gifted young conductors I’ve encountered. His personal demeanor has a very instinctive quality, which makes him very easy to like. Professionally, his rehearsal method is efficient, his technique is very clear, and he doesn’t seem to be in love with the sound of his own voice, which can be a downfall for conductors of any age. He grows with each performance and learns immediately from any mistakes.”

Hong Kong gives him plenty of opportunity to learn. When not serving as extra ears in the hall for De Waart and the orchestra’s guest conductors, So will conduct nearly 30 performances this season, most of which fall into educational and community outreach (which he has been charged with revamping, after years of neglect). His next subscription performance will be Brahms’s Second Symphony and Saint-Saëns’s Cello Concerto with soloist Zhao Jing in March 2010.

Before that, however, So will be working with Lorin Maazel, Vasily Petrenko and others as part of the month-long Dudamel Conducting Fellowship at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he will also conduct two youth concerts. He is currently managed by HarrisonParrot, which also represents Xian Zhang, another budding Chinese conductor he has been compared to in the Chinese press.

It is just that sort of ethnic boosterism, however, that is likely to give So his most serious career decisions in the future. Already, some local observers are championing him to be music director at the Hong Kong Philharmonic once De Waart’s contract is up in 2012. But Samuel Wong, the previous Ivy-educated conductor picked on the basis of his roots in the territory, proved to be a disaster for the orchestra. Wing-sie Yip, a former assistant conductor of the Philharmonic and a one-time protégé of Seiji Ozawa, proved more successful at the helm of the rival Hong Kong Sinfonietta, though at the expense of her international profile.

Although So acknowledges the temptation to succumb to Asian audiences “rooting for the home team,” he also maintains that his current post is for now very much in sync with his greater agenda. “The Hong Kong Philharmonic is a very international ensemble, so the challenge is identifying a common cultural core that everyone shares,” he says, “From there, it takes a great deal of imagination to deemphasize the ‘otherness’ of classical music in a society where it doesn’t have centuries of history.”

Which makes it good training for any conductor, Chinese or otherwise. “I’m looking forward to having my own orchestra, with its own combination of musical and civic challenges,” he says. “In the end, the thrill is the same—getting deep inside a piece and revealing it to your audience, whether they are highly discerning or discovering orchestral music for the first time.”



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