NHSO Music Director Hopeful Eyes New Haven Return

Lucy Gellman | March 24th, 2023

NHSO Music Director Hopeful Eyes New Haven Return

Culture & Community  |  Music  |  Southern Connecticut State University  |  Arts & Culture  |  New Haven Symphony Orchestra

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Perry So, one of four candidates for music director at the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, will conduct a concert on Sunday, March 10 at the John Lyman Center for the Performing Arts at Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU). He is pictured here in Wooster Square. Lucy Gellman Photo.

Perry So sees the New Haven Symphony Orchestra at a crossroads. In the past five years, it has begun to reckon with its long history of whiteness and colonialism, both in its leadership and its programming. It has learned to be nimble, with concerts in new, unexpected and sometimes pandemic-proofed spaces. It has dug into the work of overlooked composers, while still interpreting the canon on which its tradition is built.  

In a city that he once called home—and is eager to get back to—So thinks he could help take it to the next stage of that crossroads. That is, if New Haven will have him back. 

So, who is currently the conductor of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Navarra, is one of four finalists in the New Haven Symphony Orchestra's (NHSO) search for a new music director. This Sunday, he will lead the symphony in a program of Tania León’s “Ácana,” Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto (featuring soloist Aubree Oliverson), and Ludwig van Beethoven’s sweeping, dramatic Symphony No. 3.  

Maestro Alasdair Neale, who began his tenure in 2019 and helped shepherd the symphony through the Covid-19 pandemic, plans to step away after the 2023-2024 season. The three other finalists to replace Neale include Donato Cabrera, who guest conducted a NHSO concert on Jan. 20; Tania Miller, who guest conducted on March 10; and James Blachly, who is scheduled to guest conduct on April 16. 

So’s NHSO concert begins at 3 p.m. Sunday at the John Lyman Center for the Performing Arts at Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU). Tickets and more information are available here.  

“When this [job opportunity] came up, I thought, ‘I think I can really make a contribution here,’ because I feel about New Haven a way that I really don’t feel about really any other city in the U.S.,” So said Thursday in an interview with the Arts Paper. “And I guess a sense of responsibility. I really want to do this right. There’s a certain personal investment, even outside of my career, that I feel towards New Haven. This is an opportunity, hopefully, for me to give back to a city that I owe so much to.”      

It’s a potential return to the city that may be decades in the making. Growing up in Hong Kong, “music was all around the house,” So remembered. His mother, to whom he credits his melodic roots, was a music teacher, and so lessons and church choirs and concerts were always part of his life. When he was three, she enrolled him in an early childhood education program where he was able to try out the piano, percussion, singing and eurythmics. 

In other words, it never seemed like a question that music would be part of his life. It was just there, as steady and certain as a drumbeat.

Within it, classical music was vast and full of possibility; So only later came to composers like Unsuk Chin, Texu Kim, Takashi Yoshimatsu and Jessie Montgomery. While the tradition may be entrenched in whiteness, colonialism, and patriarchy, he said, So saw women conductors and conductors of color from an early age. It instilled in him the sense that anyone could be on the podium. 

He was 10 the first time he had the chance to conduct an ensemble himself. He was 12 when he tried to write his first opera. At 15, he started conducting his school’s orchestra after the teacher left midyear. Decades later, he sees those years as the basis for a career that now tethers him to Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn, Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms.

“I was really surprised that I could do it,” he said. “Convincing kids of my age to do what I had in my mind, I wasn’t sure. I was not a popular kid. I was … I was the geek squad. So I started thinking about issues of leadership, and being able to convince your peers, and thinking of the orchestra as your peers really from that point on.” 

“To Me, This Is America”

Originally, So envisioned a career in composing. When he arrived in New Haven for the first time, it was as a wide-eyed 18-year-old undergraduate at Yale. In the classroom, he gravitated towards literature, ultimately writing on the connection between literature and modernist music in Europe. Outside of it, “everything else in me was drawn to music,” he remembered with a smile. He started an orchestra, followed by an undergraduate opera company. 

Through his extracurriculars, he was also able to probe the line between conducting and composition. Ultimately, the first had a greater pull, he said. He still thinks about it as a balancing act between the original struggles and desires of the composer, the ears of the conductor, and the needs and abilities of the orchestra. 

As he grew his own international career in conducting, New Haven became his home base. When So graduated, he stayed in the Elm City for what was supposed to be a year, and became closer to seven. His wife, the historian Anna Graber, was pursuing her graduate studies in the History of Science and Medicine at Yale. When he wasn’t on the road, the two lived in the East Rock neighborhood. 

With a laugh, he remembered running the city’s Labor Day 20-kilometer road race, and then heading almost immediately to Tweed Airport, where he flew to Philadelphia and on to Amsterdam to conduct a show. When he wasn’t away conducting, he built friendships with professional musicians who still live in the area, some of whom played and still play in the NHSO. Their semi-weekly dinners became an anchor for him to which he would gladly return. 

“My family started here. My career started when I was living here. For me, this is home,” he said. “In a way because I grew up outside this country, and this is my first port of call, to me, this is America. The diversity of the city, but also the problems confronting this diversity … All of these questions that I think are so pertinent to American life at the moment, I think about them here, in New Haven. I started thinking about them here.”

“In that way, the musical community here has always felt like family to me, especially being halfway across the world from my own biological family,” he added. “This has always been my musical home.”    

“A Dialogue Between Past and Future”

His eagerness to get back to the city comes through his approach to both conducting and symphonic education, including the program he has built for Sunday’s concert. Coming into the concert, he said, the only parameter from the NHSO was that Oliverson had to be part of the program. 

Of the concertos Oliverson suggested, he selected Barber’s work for both its strength —“In my mind, the greatest American violin concerto, perhaps the greatest concerto”—and his own intimate familiarity with it. So recorded the piece roughly a decade ago. 

In the piece, violin sings out from the orchestra’s first breath, winding wistfully forward over a carpet of French horn and bed of strings. Oboe calls forth, and the violin enters a sort of dialogue with it that other strings can’t help themselves from joining. No sooner have they flowed out than the violin becomes fast and frenetic, building towards something. When the instruments come back in, it is a roaring rush that engulfs everything in its path.  

If a listener closes their eyes—and really, they should—it’s a complete sound bath, taking over every other sense. And that’s just the first few minutes. 

The rest of the program fell into place around it. Aware that he was working within time constraints—musicians get four, two-and-a-half-hour rehearsals at SCSU before they perform—So picked the Beethoven as a work in the repertoire that musicians would be fairly familiar with, and still could hear and play with new fervor and interpretation under a different conductor. The NHSO last performed the work, the conductor's “Heroic” symphony, in November 2018 under conductor William Boughton.  

The León, with which he is opening the concert, is what he thinks of as a “discovery” work—a piece where he gets to know the symphony better, they get to know him, and the audience hears a work they likely haven’t before. The timing is extremely opportune: León, a Cuban American composer, has in the last two years won a Pulitzer Prize for Music and was recently named a Kennedy Center Honoree for her decades-long contribution to the field.

“In a program such as this one, where we’re really meeting each other for the first time and trying to suss each other out, the kind of exploration, the discovery piece, would be the opening piece,” he said. “After a career that’s really been quite challenging, she’s [León] finally gaining the national recognition that she deserves.”   

If he can be exacting as a conductor, he said, it is because he knows what a given group of musicians is capable of, and feels that he and they owe it to the composers who struggled and strained to get their works out into the world. He pointed to a revelation he had roughly five years ago, on a trip with his wife to Moscow. While she was doing research during the day, he found himself wondering if he was done with conducting. 

The orchestras and musicians he was working with were clearly talented, he said—and yet “I didn’t know how to get the last five percent out of those groups.” He went through works of music in his mind, ruminating on each note. At the end of a week, and then the year that followed, he pushed himself to challenge the musicians with whom he was working.

“I’ve really worked on the rehearsal process as a meeting of craftspeople who are exploring the depths and the fine points of their craft together,” he said. “It’s an art of listening, what we do. The centerpiece of that is learning how to listen together and what to listen for together. And how to translate that into action.”

“Once I feel like we’ve gotten to a point where they know how my beat works and they know how to respond to it, I start digging into everything that I hear,” he added. “Because I think it would help us achieve a better performance.”

When he thinks about coming back to New Haven, it’s not just the symphony’s concert calendar that has him excited. He’s also enthusiastic about the educational work the NHSO is already doing, which ranges from its young peoples' concerts to its young composers project. 

If selected as music director, he said, one of his hopes is to better bring together that which is branded as educational programming and the symphony’s routine programming—the two-and-a-half to three-hour concerts that come out of its paying subscription model. 

He’s kind of over the conventions of classical music, he added—although one of his proudest moments was watching his young daughter make it through three movements of a Brahms symphony. He’s not ruffled if people clap between movements (“Tell a jazz musician that! Tell an opera musician that!” he said). He doesn’t mind if a kid can stay for the first two movements of something, and then has to leave before the end. 

At the Orquesta Sinfónica de Navarra, he encourages musicians to bring their kids to concerts. He’s also seen success with concerts that are designed for families, but inquisitive and deep enough in their study of the material that they draw in adult individuals who may not have kids. 

“This is just the beginning of an attempt, and I’m going to work at this until I retire, to convince everyone both inside and outside the citadel of music that we are a communal art form,” he said. “Not priests at the high altar versus the congregants, waiting for spiritual wisdom. We’re there together, and the audience gives us back as much as we give them.”  

Were he to land the position, he said, he would be spending time in both New Haven and his home base of St. Paul, where Graber is a professor at the University of Minnesota and the two have a young daughter, Caroline (he currently travels for his work in Pamplona, Spain, where the Orquesta Sinfónica de Navarra is based, and for performances across the country and the globe). Smiling at the thought, he said he’d love for Caroline to also get to know New Haven, which has been such a meaningful place in his life. 

“I really think of this art form as a dialogue between past and future,” he later added, looking to the symphony’s recent rediscovery of Helen Hagan, whose work features prominently in an upcoming May 12 concert. “I can’t wait to get started on that aspect of the work. I really am a believer in ‘Our past is our future,’ and before we can really come to a vision of where we want to go, we need to have a reckoning with our past. And for an institution as old as this, in a city as complex in its history and artistically rich as New Haven, there’s so much to dig into here.” 

Perry So conducts the New Haven Symphony Orchestra on Sunday, March 26 at the John Lyman Center for the Performing Arts, 501 Crescent St. in New Haven, at SCSU. Tickets and more information are available here.