Earl Lee is Associate Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who will be making his New York Philharmonic debut as a conductor in February.
He’s at MSM this week, conducting an Orchestral Performance Program (OPP) reading of selected movements from Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique on Wednesday, and will conduct MSM Camerata Nova on Friday.
The Korean-born Canadian is a renowned conductor and cellist who was Associate Conductor for the Pittsburgh Symphony from 2019 to 2021, and Resident Conductor for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra from 2015 to 2018. He sat down to talk to us about his time at MSM studying for his Master’s in conducting with George Manahan (BM ’73, MM ’76), the upcoming performances, and what he’s most looking forward to in 2022!
Tell us about the reading that’s taking place with a select group of OPP students on Jan 26? What makes Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique interesting and challenging to perform?
Earl: I think it is a great piece of music to read because everyone in the orchestra is very involved. From strings, brass, woodwinds, percussion, and even the harps in the waltz, everyone has really amazing parts that they can all look forward to learning and playing. I wanted to choose a piece of music where everyone can be engaged in a meaningful way, that’s why Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, is a good choice of music to read.
How is this piece of music challenging for you from a conductor’s perspective?
Earl: Symphonie Fantastique is a piece of music that is challenging for everyone including the conductor. There are some certain sections in the music that are really famous for conductors to learn. An example of one of the many challenges for the conductor and the players would be in the first movement when the recapitulation happens. There are a lot of off beats in the low strings, but while that’s happening, the melody is playing in the winds with a disfigured rhythm, trying to keep that together can be challenging for everyone.
But what makes this piece so special is that there are certain images associated with each movement and it’s always really fun for adults, professional musicians, or student musicians to get into the detail of how the music portrays certain images. We can be playful and imaginative on what this music might represent and just to explore that together with everyone on stage is a really fun experience.
You said this piece is very involved, how will you be working with the students this piece?
Earl: I will let them play more than me talking about certain things. It is a reading session, but I do expect the students to come prepared especially the woodwinds and brass. I imagine I’ll rehearse the full orchestra the way I usually approach a first rehearsal. We are going to work on details and I want to make sure everyone plays enough so they get a chance to really get the music under their fingers. Also I would like the students to understand the larger idea of the piece and how their parts fit into the entire orchestration.
“MSM was basically the very foundation of how I grew as a conductor, and George Manahan really helped me to set up a concrete and stable foundation so that I could grow further.”
What can you tell us about the talent level at MSM?
Earl: It’s great. I went here and there’s great talent here. I wouldn’t even say talents, just the levels of musicality are really, really high. It’s always a pleasure to work with the people here, even back when I was a student and even coming back to work with the musicians at MSM this week. It’s a it’s a big pleasure to get to know each other and to make music together.
You are conducting the MSM Camerata Nova Orchestra on JAN 28, a concert which will be livestreamed. What are the highlights of this concert for you, and why are you looking foward to it?
Earl: I recieved my Master’s degree at MSM and this was my first conducting instutition. I studied with George Manahan who’s still here and is conducting MSM Philharmonia the day before I’m conducting Camerata Nova. Some of the repertoire I’ve chosen is very special to me because these are some of the first pieces I studied with George. For example, Stravinsky’s Concerto in E-flat Dumbarton Oaks was my audition piece. And after I was accepted into the program, I studied this piece in depth with George so it’s very special in that way. It’s a fun piece of music but a very important piece for the younger musicians to learn because it teaches you how to play together and also how to decipher the complex meters. The Dallapiccola Piccola musica notturna is another piece of music I studied with George while I was a student here. It is a twelve-tone piece that doesn’t really sound twelve-tone because it’s so lyrical and beautiful. It was actually really heartwarming to get the score from the orchestra library because the photo copy I received still had my marking in it from when I was a student and first learning the piece. I made the twelve tone rows and all its inversions, and the graph was still in the score. The work is associated with a poem and I wrote the translation in the score and that was still there too. So when I got the score from the library and opened it up, it was very special moment for me.
How did studying at MSM prepare you for your professional career?
Earl: MSM was basically the very foundation of how I grew as a conductor, and George really helped me to set up a concrete and stable foundation so that I could grow further. He’s truly my first conducting teacher and he started me off in a very warm and generous way. He’s so kind and he never made me feel uncomfortable or nervous. He was so open and helped me take things in a really positive way. Rather than being worried about certain rehearsals where meeting a new group of people is already nerve wrecking to begin with, he helped me to always remain open. His willingness to work with musicians in a very communicative and positive way is a very good example for all the students who have gone through the program.
Can you tell us why studying at MSM was valuable to you personally and why you recommend it to other?
Earl: Aside from my time working with George Manahan, I found the other classes I took outside of conducting extremely valuable. My degree from MSM was my second Master’s degree, I received my first degrees in cello, so when I initially came in I wanted to just concentrate on conducting, however, I was required to take other non-conducting related classes. In these classes, I was able to study with different types of faculty members which I very enjoyed. The different classes are so unique and the amount of topics you can choose from are so valuable. I remember really enjoying Reiko Fueting’s score reading class as well as Stambaugh’s orchestra history class. I also took Nils Vigeland’s class on analyzing 20th century music when he was still teaching at MSM. These classes have stayed with me even now, which is almost 10 years later. This is one of many valuable things that the school offered.
What you’re excited about in 2022?
Earl: Personally I’m looking forward to seeing my daughter grow. She’s about a year and a half now and I love seeing her grow every day and lean new things. I see the light bulb going off on the top of her head everyday which is really magical for me to watch. Another thing I’m looking forward to is in two weeks, I make my debut with the New York Philharmonic on their Feb 8 Lunar New Year concert. That’s something that I’m excited about and also a little nervous for. I also make my debut with the San Francisco Symphony later in February. Those are two musical events I’m really looking forward to!
MSM Camerata Nova
JAN 28 | FRI
Earl Lee (MM ’13), Conductor
LUIGI DALLAPICCOLA Piccola musica notturna (for chamber orchestra)
DONGHOON SHIN The Hunter’s Funeral
RICHARD WAGNER Siegfried Idyll, WWV 103
IGOR STRAVINSKY Concerto in E-flat (Dumbarton Oaks)
I. Tempo giusto
III. Con moto
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