Apo Hsu, influential as a conductor and teacher of conductors, met this writer a couple of weeks ago during her visits to the BSO for the rehearsals and performances of Formosa Triptych, by her friend and colleague Chihchun Chi-sun Lee. Her former student and current mentee BSO Assistant Conductor Yu-An Chang presided at the podium. Our conversation after the first rehearsal intrigued me.
FLE: Let’s begin with a summary of your connections.
AH: I’ve known Chihchun Chi-sun Lee for many years, and her husband Michael Timpson composed a piece I have premiered in Taipei; we have been in touch and supporting each other. Yu-An Chang started his conducting studies during his junior year and continued over a few years to earn his master’s degree in conducting with me at the National Taiwan Normal University before he went on to Berlin for further studies.
How did you recognize his abilities, especially in someone who doesn’t play a Western instrument?
He plays a Chinese bamboo flute like a virtuoso. In undergrad that was his major instrument; his playing resonated in the NTNU music building, and it projected incredibly well. You can hear it from 100 feet away, and he was always practicing diligently. He was often the first one who entered and the last one to leave the music building.
So, what was the notation that was used for that instrument?
Way back it was with Arabic numerals, but gradually within the last 25 years or so it is often transferred to Western notation. When he started in his teens, much of the sheet music was with “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7”, as translated to do re mi fa so la si.
And were the numbers on lines with bars?
They would be written with numbers horizontally on a line, with vertical bar lines. If you write a 1 with a dot, that means a beat and a half. A whole note would be written in 1- – – . There is a system of dots and dashes in the notation that indicates rhythm and octaves.
So, a full score with all those numbers must look pretty messy.
It’s actually not overly complicated because the traditional Chinese instrumental ensembles use not more than five or six different sections, and some still use this notation. Contemporary composers create new works for the Chinese Orchestras these days with multiple independent sections and western notation equivalently to the western orchestra.
Yu-An Chang: I did have to read them when I was very young, and to be honest, I can read those twice as fast as western notations (if not 10 times).
The ancient tune Harmonious Family arranged by Mr. Tung [Listen HERE]
AH: No, all the juniors who are music majors in the National Taiwan Normal University are required to take an introductory conducting class. Close to 30 would come through my class each year; there would always be a handful that are a bit more natural and gifted.
In terms of movement or musicality?
Movement, musicality, understanding…all of it. The movement, the natural physique and the understanding of music are all essential, because you have to have the musical background, the understanding of composition, etc. to conduct well. You can sense somebody’s sensitivity right away.
If ten people sing the same melody to you, you could feel ten different ways and you could pick out the ones you like or feel and realize that that some are not done so smoothly. Still others flow naturally. You can sense musicality quickly. And Yu-An stood out as a natural.
Did he have any idea at that point that he was interested in becoming a conductor?
Maybe not at first, but by his senior year he was already discovering this passion and talent, so he decided the next thing he would do would be to study to become a conductor. He was such a hard worker, and still is now. So, he auditioned and entered the graduate conducting program. He is a great people person; he makes friends with all his peers, and at the school, he organized friends three or four times a year to give full symphony concerts. That took a lot of effort, but he is able to do that, and he collaborated frequently with his composer colleagues to premiere their works.
So, from the beginning, he was interested in new music.
Precisely. That gave him a lot of podium time to improve his craft.
But some of the love of new music must have come from you.
Perhaps. I worked in the States for quite a while. I was assistant to Maestro James DePreist at the Oregon Symphony, and while I also served as the music director to the Oregon Mozart Players in Eugene, where in addition to Mozart, we played some new music appropriate to the ensemble size.
I went on to become the music director to Springfield Symphony in Missouri and concurrently as the artistic director and conductor of the Women’s Philharmonic in San Francisco. The Women’s Philharmonic played basically 99% new or lesser known music. We premiered many pieces at TWP. Early on at graduate school, at the Hartt School of Music in Connecticut, my conducting teacher Maestro Charles Brook, was a Monteux student, so playing new music was part of the tradition.
But let’s go back to your work as a teacher. So, you look at the way people move when they are in your introductory conducting class and you can tell before they’ve had any training whether they can move expressively or just whether they’re coordinated.
Yes, all of that. I have worked with many graduate conductors and I would say a lot of the time, 20% of my time working with them through music is to help them become more coordinated, so their music will flow out naturally from their body movement: How you make your gestures will show the feelings you wish to display. In the beginning, many conductors are very passionate, but their body is not cooperating. So, I have to work with that as well.
How do you do that? Do they watch videos of themselves? Do you demonstrate?
All of that. I will help them with the body movement coordination on how to move their arms and hands more naturally. Usually in our lessons, we will have two pianos playing the reduction of a symphony or two pianos and a string ensemble. So, they would make the conductorial gestures and then get responses and feedback from the musicians.
Are these pianists paid to be particularly responsive?
Yes, some musicians are enrolled in the collaborative program and the various studios hours become their lab hours. They would collaborate with the conductors as part of their practicum training.
So that’s when the megalomania starts kicking in?
That’s how it works. [laughs] Sometimes I will work with a person one-on-one without instrumentalists. Sometimes the instrumentalist would distract the conductors, so I might ask the conducting student to sing the score from the top to the end and show the music and move their hands, their arms and their body to show the music. We can do one-on-one, but in the end, you need to have live musicians to respond to you, otherwise it’s always theoretical, not practical.
There are a lot of ways to learn. There are probably some conductors who aren’t terribly well coordinated and slightly awkward with their movements, but are so musical and so brilliant they can get across musical ideas in rehearsals and can just maintain the musical pulse in performances and musicians know what to do to perform well. But it is nicer if the conductor has good communicative conducting technique, then the music making comes much more alive and natural. The musicians won’t be puzzled and guessing what the conductor wants.
As you’re talking, you’re gesturing reflexively.
Well, I guess I am naturally also talking with my hands. As a conductor, you need to be independent with both arms.
Yu-An Chang has the most eloquent left hand I have seen since Ozawa.
Right, he’s gifted that way. Yu-An’s technique comes to him naturally, but to him personally it’s everything else on top of the technique, because the technique could come, but without the personality, musicality, hard work, the technique is nothing; fortunately, Yu-An has both.
But why would anyone want to be a conductor without having a broad understanding and appreciation of the music, without being emotional, and without wanting to lead?
Of course, they would want to, but in the beginning stages for a young conductor, sometimes it’s hard to overcome the obstacles, the insecurity, the poor body coordination; it’s not easy for a person to stand up in the spotlight where your every move affects everyone in front of you. For introvert, that’s a big challenge for stepping out of their own shells and be venerable and do it bravely.
And some orchestra players are not kind to guest conductors
and you have to be ready to show them that you know the score better than they do.
Yes. It takes such confidence and security to show your craft.
So, this is probably why a guest conductor will often choose a lesser-known work of a famous composer, because then he is likely then to know the work better than the players.
Very good point. The young conductor that leads the Beethoven Fifth for the first time with a major orchestra will stand up there and the orchestra members would have played it dozens of times already. You know, that’s very scary. But not everybody gets the opportunity, right?
How do you sing the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth?
Did I hear triplets plus one?
No, no, no, eighth notes. Yes, it’s very important to know how to conduct the opening of the Beethoven’s Fifth.
Well, Yu-An also sings nicely. I listened to him in rehearsals and he clearly cares a lot. And his gestures were beautiful to watch. He does dynamics with his entire body, sometimes compressing like a coiled spring.
Exactly. Music flows through his entire body.
and he will leap.
He’s all involved with his music, which is great, yes.
YC: To me, singing is very important, I actually learned that from Maestro Herbert Blomstedt; I fly everywhere to just attend his rehearsals and concerts as often as possible, and talk with him if I have a chance. He always sings what he wants, and the orchestra just understands it in a second. I find that’s the best way to share with the orchestra the emotion and joy you find in the score.
So, what do you think you gave him in particular?
AH: I think I inspired him somehow into conducting and then he took it and ran with it. He’s always been very self-motivated, he takes initiatives, and gives concerts on his own, and does all this interesting repertoire that’s not only standard, because he’s interested with all things around him. He gets a lot of stimulation from his colleagues; with composers, they discuss the scores very much in depth.
Chihchun and he met months ago over the score and discussed all the details. Yu-An just drills into his scores much more than others might.
At this point in his career he has the luxury of time to be able to do that.
I think he’s going do it even as a music director someday somewhere, because that’s his personality. He’s always worked very hard. With the BSO subscriptions, he came in hours before the curtain time, studies the score that he had performed already three or four times; he stills reviews and looks at the scores to find something more; he’s always pushing and drilling himself into deeper levels of understanding.
You have to have that relentless desire in quest for improvement. Art is never perfect. You are always striving for excellence; the bar is always above you.
So, is he ever going to come back to you for a tune up the way singers do sometimes with their early teachers?
Not so much for a tune up, but when I see him work, I give him my observations and input. For instance, not quite right here, too much of this, or too little of that and do stay grounded, etc.
Did he talk with you about the Formosa Triptych?
Not with me, but with the composer. When they were first discussing the score in Taiwan, I was present; I know how he works. He always likes to meet with the composer and they discuss every detail, he asks every question on his mind: Why do you write this here, why do you write that there, what kind of sound is intended; he asks many whys and hows until he gets all the answers.
We listened to the first rehearsal of Formosa Triptych together. You had the score in front of you, why were you interested in listening with the score to that rehearsal?
I’m always interested to see what’s on the page, and what comes out with the realization of the music making from the musicians and the conductor.
Do you remember the moment when you first heard Western music or did you always know it from the time you were a child?
I remember hearing Western music more than Eastern music because my mother loved Italian songs. We had a piano at home and my father, a physician, had bought a huge LP player, like a piece of furniture, and they used to put on the Strauss waltzes record, and the two of them would waltz across our living room. That was my first encounter with Western music. I only heard Eastern music at temples and on the streets during festivities, with loud drums and suonas marching down the street.
Did your parents give you the impression that there was something superior about Western music?
They didn’t say anything, but it was very accessible to me. I started piano lessons young with Western music, and we had great elementary school music education most with Western music. I probably had Western music 80% of time, maybe 20% with Chinese music; we also sang or played some Chinese instruments.
How does a conductor develop the ability to look at a full orchestral score and really hear it in his head? And can everyone who conducts do that? Is that something you can help them develop?
You have to be able to look at the score and be able to imagine how it sounds. In all the training before you become a conductor, one studies the sight singing, sight reading. harmony, form and analysis, and music history, etc. All of that is to help one understand the music/score. So, you need all of that, to open a score and know how it should sound. So, with concentration and all that knowledge a score would become a sound in your mind. You have to be able to imagine that the timbre and the texture just by looking at it. It’s a required of a conductor to be able to do that.
Do you have to spend a week with the score to get to that point or can you grasp it at sight?
Both. Of course, some scores are more complicated. Some, say a Bach or a Mozart might come to you quicker, but for something modern and complicated works, you need a lot of time to get all the details assembled and understand how it stands up as a composition.
And you ask when or how old one could become a conductor.
If one starts early on with this kind of thorough musical training, maybe one can have a full understanding of a score in one’s teens, but it’s more likely the time is too short for one to be a complete conductor at a very young age.
Now, are you one of these pianists who can look at an orchestral score and play some facsimile of it on the piano?
I could do some percentage of it. I’m not that good at grasping all the details on the keyboard of a complicated score. Some people just grasp it and play on, but I need to practice it a bit and get through a score. Sometimes you need to go to the keyboard and play through to get a gist of the new piece, especially with the new music. Especially with the new pieces where there’s no sound recording and you have to learn the score from scratch.
When I was working with the Women’s Philharmonic in San Francisco, I did that all the time, because we were doing new pieces and lesser known older pieces, like Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann, Emilie Mayer, etc. Sometimes there are no recordings that I could go to except sight reading it, singing it, studying it and then build it in my mind how it should all come together. So, you go line by line chord by chord, section by section, and gradually build it up from scratch.
So, does that mean that a conductor who plays the piano has an easier time than one who doesn’t?
The pianist-conductor has an advantage. Yes, but some conductors say, it’s not good to just take a score and sit at the piano and play. You can hear all the notes of course, but that does not have the timbre, the texture, and the orchestral layers. It takes away the imagination.
But do pianist-conductors have less sympathy with string sections, for instance, than conductors who themselves play strings?
As a conductor you have to try to understand all the instruments and be able to ask for what you would like to hear. So, all instrumentalist-singer-pianist conductors need to understand each instrument and be able to express accordingly explicitly.
Do you have to like or be passionate about everything that you conduct? So will you refuse to conduct something that you don’t like? Can you be like a lawyer defending a client that’s guilty?
You have to be completely committed to the music you’re conducting. This is always the case for me even with pieces that are not masterworks. Even in a commissioned work, you don’t know how it’s going to turn out, but once I commit to a piece, I treat it as my first love. I will give it all I’ve got.
Often, I tell my students if you get some piece that’s not all to your liking, or not a superior work, you have to make it sound better. You have to add to it and make it come above and that’s the challenge for any good musician, rather than in a great piece, where whatever you do is more likely to be brilliant.
Have you ever rejected a piece that’s been commissioned?
I haven’t. Although there were pieces that were more challenging to deliver either stylistically or technically. I always try to bring it to life as well as I could.
Did you then push back and ask the composer to make changes?
Yes, I would discuss it with the composer and maybe suggest some logical changes, but I would always try to make it come alive, and make sure that the piece could stand well.
Composers need sympathetic souls like you to make the best case for their music and to keep it alive. Do you have a list of things that you want to bring back that you conducted 10 and 20 years ago that you are planning?
There are some new pieces I would like to do again. I’m returning in February in concert in Colorado where I am bringing back Jennifer Higdon’s Fanfare Ritmico, which the Women’s Philharmonic commissioned and I premiered. The other one is Carolyn Yarnell’s Yosemite Suite. From the multiple movements, one can put together your own suite by choosing among her many movements. The performance I put together six years ago really pleased me, where we presented a suite out of the Yosemite Suite in Taipei. For the Colorado performance, I’m bringing one of the movements that Carolyn Yarnell dedicated to me. I’m happy to do that as an advocate for my composer friends in Colorado along with a Brahms symphony.
Are there any other of your conducting students that we’ve heard or heard of?
Yes, many in Asia, and a couple in US. The Associate Conductor of Richmond Symphony in Virginia, Ms. Chia-Hsuan Lin was Yu-An’s classmate, the Assistant Conductor of Cincinnati Symphony, Mr. Wilbur Lin, is a junior of Yu-An. Su-Han Yang, based in Berlin, is a conducting competition winner, active in Europe and Asia, and Tung-Chieh Chuang, based in Berlin, has won competitions frequent guest conducts for many European and Asian orchestras.
Last October Yu-An also guest conducted a National Symphony Orchestra concert in Taipei with a talented composer, Mr. Yu Chung-Yuan’s work, “Song Valley”. These are a few outstanding young talents making their ways in the field of classical music.
What is the state of elementary school music education in Taiwan and other places where you’ve spent time?
In general, Taiwan’s music education started young and is much better than in the States. It’s mandatory in Taiwan, for instance to have music classes weekly, along with extra curriculum bands, choirs, orchestras. And there are also focused tracks for those with special talents in music, sports, sciences, etc.
I’m glad to hear that, because it’s really essential that we develop new listeners by exposing everyone in those formative years.
In regards to the Tchaikovsky Third Symphony, which we heard at this weekend’s BSO concerts, why is it that so many people in the biz sneer at the romanticism of Tchaikovsky or make disparaging comments about the composer? What is your feeling about the third and what is your feeling about Tchaikovsky in general—and I’m asking this of someone who has her contemporary music credentials completely in order.
I love Tchaikovsky, I’ve done his second, fourth, fifth and sixth symphonies and all the overtures because his music really gets into your heart. It provides such a romantic way for a person to express their musical feeling… the emotion. Tchaikovsky is wonderful for that.
But is it old-fashioned in some way that requires a special kind of performance to freshen it?
Tchaikovsky is never old to me. It’s pure emotion and he gives you this vehicle to really open your heart. It touches one’s core very deeply. So, I love this music.
What did you think of Yu-An’s take on the third?
We’re not as familiar with the third, but knowing its Tchaikovsky’s music, a masterwork even though it’s from a slightly earlier period. The melodious singing quality, the excitement, the delicacy, the finesse, really drew me in. It’s growing on me, and I think there’s something about the way Yu-An conducted it, because he adds a lot of details; he makes it flow nicely, paces it well, brings up the climax, and he let the musicians sing naturally.
Yu-An can really shape and sculpt, and he has a very good sense of clarity which draws a listener close to it. I have also heard him do this symphony in Taipei in October, but there’s no doubt that hearing the BSO play it again in the Symphony Hall, with its beautiful warm sound, with one of my favorite mentees, brought me tremendous pleasure.
YC: Apo has one of the biggest hearts I’ve seen among all people I’ve encountered. All of her students follow her instruction while developing their very own style; she has the ability to guide all kinds of conductors without forcing them to become a fixed shape. I feel very blessed to have her as my teacher.
Click HERE for Apo Hsu’s official bio.