The Mercury Orchestra presents “an odyssey of the individual against the forces of fate through the revolutionary music of Beethoven” Saturday night at Jordan Hall. Conductor Channing Yu will be on the podium as he has been since founding the surprisingly rewarding volunteer ensemble orchestra in 2008. The concert begins at 7:30 and management suggests $10 for admission. Alone on our calendar for Boston, this event constitutes the best of all possible concerts for Saturday night.
Beethoven’s overture to Heinrich Joseph von Collin’s 1804 drama Coriolan juxtaposes the stirrings of war with a mother’s pleas for peace. His fifth piano concerto (Emperor), which he dedicated to his patron, the Archduke Rudolf, epitomizes Beethoven’s middle or heroic period, defining a new relationship between soloist and orchestra. The soloist Nan Ni 倪楠, has just won the first Fou Ts’ong International Piano Competition, sponsored by the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts. The Fifth Symphony, universally known for its opening fate motif, “not only towers as a symphonic edifice but also provides an intimately sublime portrait of individual struggle,” according to the conductor.
Channing Yu talked with BMInt about founding the orchestra and forks in his personal journey.
FLE: I know you don’t like to talk much in the musical context about your life in the medical arts but nevertheless I’m curious about your attitude as to whether music can be enjoyed for its own sake or whether it needs to be viewed as healing or something beyond especially for somebody with your dual background.
CY: That’s a fascinating question for so many reasons. I felt that there is considerable overlap between what I have done in my training and practiced in medicine as a physician. To a scientist, that directly relates to music, especially conducting. And what I mean by that is that as a physician I was trained to listen, listen very carefully: to what’s being said, as well as what’s not being said and so trying to hear what the composer is getting at with the notations on the page. What is said there? And what is not being said. And then especially for the orchestra when I’m facing the orchestra, I’m hearing certain things and not others in certain sections compared to the expectations I have inside. And taking that to the next level of diagnosis and saying, okay I see something different from what I am hearing. Why is that? And then thinking about treatment. How do I explain or show my musicians the way to meeting what I’m envisioning?
As a physician, have you ever wanted to give a musician a tranquilizer or a shock treatment?
The question is a little bit bigger for me. The orchestra is an instrument like no other. It’s made of human beings. Every day the orchestra is different based on who is in the group.
One person’s presence or absence in a group can change the dynamics of the group and how it responds, how it expresses, and what it wants to say. As a conductor I try to understand, not only the technical strength of limitation of anyone’s particular instrument, but also how that connected to these individuals as people. Identifying what I can do to have people perform at their best is the ongoing challenge and joy of conducting for me.
Well, how do you do that without embarrassing individuals? If you are aware that somebody is not producing what you want, do you wait until after the rehearsal or to you sometimes say you’re too sharp or you’re too flat?
The answer for me is to have a personalized approach to each of the hundred individuals. A case in point might be the French horns. Some players would prefer that you look at them to give them the confidence for a particularly challenging entrance. Other ones might say, please don’t look at me. That makes me nervous. And so just having the right recipe for what people have shown that they need and prefer for their communication style, how they want to receive feedback and how they understand music. At my rehearsals, I use a combination of imagery. I might have a vision that may be abstract or visual based on a painting or a scene or a story at the same time. I might say, okay, please start the beginning of this note, louder and taper it as you go through this part of the measure.
What I enjoy most about the orchestra is the diversity of backgrounds and approaches. We’re very fortunate in a city like Boston that there are many people with extensive musical training and many of whom could have taken a path to a professional music career but chose other interests to make their predominant vocation.
Do you audition everyone?
All of our positions are filled with auditions.
Is that why Mercury sounds better than many of volunteer orchestras?
That’s a very kind assessment from you. Several factors contribute. One is the extent of extensive training that members have had in the past. Two is the audition process where we are looking for people who will be able to do what’s needed to put together, some difficult pieces, in a short amount of time with minimal rehearsals.
But you don’t care whether they learn the music at home or whether they’re super sight readers?
We care about whether our members really understand how to play together as part of the orchestra so that we can have coordination, not only on a rhythmic level, but also on an expressive, and communicative level. And that’s hard to assess for sure.
Over the 14 years that we’ve been in existence, we’ve learned from each other. How we all have a responsibility to the group, as well as to ourselves in creating this artistic product at the concert.
Have many of these people have played with you since the beginning?
We have many people who have been here since the beginning. Most of our membership has stayed active in the orchestra over the years, such that every year, when we have auditions, we may add five to ten new members out of a full roster of approximately 150.
Do you ever have to audition anyone out?
We don’t have re-auditions for our members.
You haven’t been in business so long that anyone’s becoming too superannuated yet.
With a community orchestra it’s a two-way relationship which has to make sense for both the members and the organization.
Do the players make suggestions about repertoire?
All the time.
And you listen all the time?
Some of the time! We’re limited to about two or three concerts a year because we’re only performing in the summers. We have a very long wish list of works to perform. We have tended to play the larger symphonic literature because that’s particularly exciting for people who may not have the chance to play some of these masterworks. And some of these works are not commonly heard with professional organizations because they’re too expensive. They involve large forces. We’ve had somewhat of a niche to be able to perform these at a high level and with additional enthusiasm from our members, who very much enjoy getting the chance. Players work really hard in our orchestra because they recognize how special some of these opportunities are.
How did your relationship with Cathy Chan and the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts, the sponsors of Saturday’s nights concerto competition, come about?
I met Cathy Chan, almost 30 years ago, when I was a student at the Foundation’s Summer Program which was then held at Walnut Hill. I had a marvelous opportunity to study piano with Cheng-Zong Yin who was a winner in the Tchaikovsky competition decades ago, as well as with Wha Kyung Byun; I also studied violin with Lynn Chang. I attended this program for two summers and it was an amazing immersive experience to take a deep dive into both the piano and violin solo literature as well as chamber music while every evening seeing great performances by the faculty. It really inspired me to explore my horizons as a musician with Ms. Byun during college.
Through a series of events and some soul searching during college, I made the decision to pursue a career as a physician and scientist. I was working in a laboratory at Children’s Hospital studying cancer in children and adults, working on some of the science that might lead eventually to treatments.
It was so exciting to be alongside people who are on the frontier of medicine and science. And I imagined that this would be a wonderful thing to do day-to-day. So I went into medical training shortly afterwards at Harvard Medical School and eventually stayed there as a junior faculty member for several years.
But your connection with the Foundation continued. Does it go beyond their sponsoring a concerto competition every year?
When the Foundation still had the program for students, there was a concerto competition, and the winner would play with the Longwood Symphony Orchestra. At some point, apparently due to mutual scheduling concerns, Cathy Chan and I started talking about the possibility of having the interaction with the Mercury Orchestra. That turned into an extremely rewarding, collaboration over several years, where not only would Mercury host the concerto competition winner, but we would also have about 15 or 20 of the string players in the program embedded in the orchestra for that performance. That provided a very productive collaboration for both Mercury and the students.
Are you on the jury for the selection of the 2022 Fou Ts’ong International Concerto Competition? What did you admire about the winner?
I was indeed a member of the jury of pianists who selected the winner for the Saturday’s performance. This year’s winner Nan Ni 倪楠 [more HERE] is a young pianist whom I find to have a unique expressive voice, particularly with Beethoven. She presents in a very conversational style, and she responds to the orchestra as well as the other way around. She’s been a wonderful collaborator with the orchestra in our first rehearsal together.
As a young performer, does she have the ego to lead the conductor in a concerto?
With the big Emperor Concerto, I would say we’ve reached quite a bit of parity between the soloist and the orchestra. Nan Ni also realizes that the piano sometimes functions as just another instrument in a cantata, but obviously in others, it’s a singular voice which brings new thoughts and ideas as well as embellishments, restatements, and intensifications of previous statements.
Does she have carte blanche to surprise you in the moment?
She does! This is what makes concerto playing a thrilling adventure. It a joint decision. How do you pace the piece? What are the highs? What are the lows? Where there opportunities to take more liberties within a phrase, at the end of the phrase, or even at the beginning the first the first note of a phrase? How do you give enough signals that something is going to happen a certain way without losing the sense of spontaneity that is most prized in live performance? Well, I do hope she surprises me.
Can a listener detect when the soloist is pushing or pulling?
Absolutely. This is one of the driving forces behind classical music. The tension between movement and stasis and between dissonance and consonance…the soloist versus the orchestra. In our Beethoven concert, fate and free will contest in the individual, as well as major versus minor, fast versus slow. These dichotomies are the engine that drives classical music. Realizing that music is both compelling and logical makes this more fun than anything else.
Remind us what else is on the program Saturday night.
In this all-Beethoven concert, we begin with Coriolanus Overture. Returning to the contrasts that we’ve been talking about. This is about a man who has very strong moral convictions and has great difficulty in a society, which he feels to be corrupt. We hear this not only in the C minor but in some of the relentless rhythms in some of the many rests where there is no sound in the music and we hear this contrasted slightly with the more tender lyrical and collaborative speech of his mother in the second theme and this sets us up in C minor for the rest of the program, including the Emperor Concerto in E-flat Major. And then the master’s 5th Symphony which begins as we know begins in C minor and eventually moves to C major.
How do you handle the famous four notes?
There’s much ambiguity about these first four notes. They can’t tell us whether we are in a major key or minor key. So our job is to navigate that uncertainty because that is an essential ingredient of this entire piece. As they repeat, they have the same basic function, but they’re like a brick in this magnificent edifice, but the bricks serve different functions in different parts of the edifice and they support different loads. Some have more of a decorative function, others have a weight bearing function, and some are used especially in a transitional function. Beethoven makes specific choices about which instrument or groups of instruments are playing this motif at any given time. and to understand the choices is part of the fun of understanding and unlocking this piece to create it anew.
Do you want to say anything about fundraising and challenges for the future?
I thought walking over here that keeping this orchestra going is like building an elaborate sandcastle quite close to the shoreline. Sustaining a structure against oncoming tides figuratively or maintaining an orchestra in a somewhat indifferent wider society presents similar challenges.
Community orchestras aren’t always understood by concertgoers. Many community orchestra participants pay to play. Does that make them more sustainable? I assume some of your players can afford make contributions. How do you survive?
We are extremely lean as an organization. Volunteers help with the management and the operations of the orchestra. Our budget depends on ticket sales and contributions. We don’t have an endowment. We don’t have a dedicated fundraising staff. All these vagaries have forced us to reflect about why we exist what we’re trying to do. What is our audience? We’ve answered these questions for now by saying that we are here to bring some of the symphonic masterworks—better known and lesser known —to the community and to encourage musicians to work together to realize these performances.
The Beethoven Fifth and the Emperor aren’t exactly rarities. So that kind of a concert may appeal more to the people who are playing than the people who seek novelty.
We’re still trying to understand that, particularly in the recent past where people are starting to come back to concerts and they’re making different choices about their time. It’s a vital time for us to analyze what resonates with others. Right now, exploring some of those basic pillars of music felt necessary in an unsettled and changed world. With this group, at this time, it couldn’t be clearer for us.
You seem slightly worried about the future.
This this comes down to the survival of any organization. Gone are the days when the super-influential reviewers at major publications and the record labels dictated what music could be performed and by whom. Now audiences have much more of a say. We’ve been re-focusing on our core mission while reaching for new listeners rather than new audiences.
We’re a small organization, but I’m going to borrow from Ben Zander, okay? He says that everyone loves classical music, but they just don’t all know yet. It doesn’t matter where they come from, we feel that our job is to make a compelling case for any music that we’re presenting and attract people to it.
So you expect them to come to you…you don’t have the luxury to run out to them.
Performing in a temple of culture makes it easier to achieve success at convincing new listeners that they already love classical music than presenting in a gymnasium or tent. The concert hall for orchestras is the instrument. It can’t be simpler than that.
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