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The conducting (and life) philosophy of Earl Lee, who conducts the TSO’s “Tchaikovsky for the Holidays” Nov-Dec/18!

The conducting (and life) philosophy of Earl Lee, who conducts the TSO’s “Tchaikovsky for the Holidays” Nov-Dec/18! featured image

The TSO is putting on an early holiday treat – “Tchaikovsky for the Holidays” between November 28 and December 2, which is perfect if you plan on getting away for the holidays. This is a great concert for families, too, and a way to experience the holidays while you’re still in town. I spoke with former TSO Resident Conductor Earl Lee, who returns to the TSO to conduct this concert. I’m grateful he took a moment to answer these questions – so much of a musician’s work is away from a computer so being able to do these Q+A’s is a treat for me.

You started out as a cellist before becoming a conductor. What piqued your curiosity to try conducting?
My father was a big fan of classical music. He was probably one of very few people who owned a laser disc player (large version of DVDs) in our town in Korea, and brought different videos of live orchestra concerts. I remember watching these with my father and being fascinated by the conductors. When I went to the Curtis Institute of Music to study cello, I played in a group called the Lab Orchestra, which was a practice orchestra for the student conductors. The conducting teacher at the time was Otto-Werner Mueller who taught everyone in the orchestra so much, but was a very tough teacher to his own students. This made me feel a bit afraid to pursue conducting during this time. A few years after my graduation from Curtis, I told myself that “why not”? And I dove right into studying to be a conductor.

I’m glad you didn’t let the initial fear put you off! And since you were a cellist first, I gotta ask: any travel nightmare stories? (I’ve interviewed cellists about this ….)
Yes! It was at my very first orchestra audition which was for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. This was during my last year at Curtis as a student. I made a few mistakes: first, I decided to fly out to Chicago on the day of the audition, in the middle of January; and second, I decided to check my cello in the cargo to save money from having to buy another seat. My flight at 6:00 AM got cancelled, and I was put on a later flight which was way too late for my audition time. I put myself on the waiting list for an earlier flight which fortunately worked out. When I arrived in Chicago, I realized that my cello was bumped into the later flight and was not coming to Chicago until that flight arrived. When I got to the hall, it was way past my audition time, but I was still allowed to audition, except that both my cello and my hands were frozen. I never played so terribly anywhere in my life.

(*Editor’s note: I’ve sent a follow-up question asking if he got in. I’ll update this post once I find out.)

You’re known for your emotional connection to the music. How do you create that connection with an orchestra? The audience?
One thing that I always try to remember is to be myself in front of the orchestra. I feel that when the orchestra senses that I am not trying to be someone I am not, and show them my true self as a person and a musician, they often open up. When this is achieved, we can make music together without any boundaries and connect with the music in a very emotional level. The audience can always sense the emotional performances from the stage when it happens, and naturally becomes a part of that journey.

This sounds like a good philosophy to adopt in life in general. I love behind-the-scenes stories. Any backstage emergencies you can reveal? (ie, you left your music in the hotel …. forgot your dress socks … walked out to conduct one piece only to find you’re starting with another piece ….)
Haven’t had any incidents yet! (Knocking on wood).

Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker is so well-known – how will you make it your own? And did you select the excerpts?
I didn’t select the excerpts-—there is a very popular suite compilation that offers most of the popular tunes that one would expect to hear when they go to hear The Nutcracker. When I study the score, I always look for the clues to what the composer might have wanted.

The opening to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 has the most dramatic brass opening I know (with the possible exception of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man) – please tell me what feelings or images you’re channeling when you conduct it!
Well, this piece has a nickname in some parts of the world as “Fate”. Tchaikovsky himself wrote to fellow composer Sergei Taneyev that his fourth symphony was in some ways a reflection of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony (which also bears the same nickname “Fate”). I don’t particularly try to picture images, but it helps me to think about what inspired the composer to write certain music—what were they going through in their life? As a performer, I try to put myself in the composer’s shoes, and try to create the emotional content of the music that could reflect my imagination and ideas of their state as human beings.

One thing that I really think about in this particular symphony, especially in the beginning, is that I don’t give too much right away, because the dramatic brass opening comes back a few times in the piece.


Tchaikovsky for the Holidays
Wednesday, November 28 at 8 PM
Thursday, November 29 at 8 PM
Friday, November 30 at 7:30 PM
Sunday, December 2 at 3 PM
Roy Thomson Hall (at King & Simcoe)

For more concert information and how to get tickets, please click here.

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