In her final year with Seattle Symphony, associate conductor Carolyn Kuan is busier than ever, making music here and going places where her future looks very bright.
Carolyn Kuan | photo by Aaron Locke
The purpose of the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva is to simulate the beginning of the universe. Its official inauguration in late October was, accordingly, a great big deal.
Big, in fact, is what the LHC is all about. Eight billion dollars and fourteen years in the making, it’s the largest science experiment ever, involving ten thousand scientists and engineers from over one hundred countries in an attempt to accelerate protons to energies of seven trillion volts and slam them together in search of new particles to produce a Grand Unified Theory of physics.
Carolyn Kuan, associate conductor of the Seattle Symphony, was there, alongside the leaders of Switzerland and France and dozens of Nobel laureates. Kuan fit in fine: at thirty-one, the Mercer Island resident is a citizen of the world, raised in Taiwan, educated in economics at Smith College and in classical music at the University of Illinois and the Peabody Conservatory of Music. She is a charming and informed conversationalist in Mandarin and English.
The purpose of the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva is to simulate the beginning of the universe. Its official inauguration in late October was, accordingly, a great big deal….and Carolyn Kuan, associate conductor of the Seattle Symphony, was there.
As it happened, the collider was down for repairs. Kuan got a glimpse of the disabled machine inside a seventeen-mile tunnel nearly six hundred feet below ground on the French-Swiss border, but only after an elaborate series of retinal scans and other security measures. “It was a very 007 experience,” Kuan recalls. Back on the surface, she was at the center of the CERN gala.
Kuan conducted the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in a performance of Origins, a multimedia work with music by Philip Glass and imagery by National Geographic’s Frans Lanting. That a young Pacific Northwest conductor was called upon to participate in such a high-profile performance attests to Kuan’s career trajectory. It also underscores her commitment to contemporary music — “What’s so great is that you don’t know where it’s going to go or how it’s going to end,” she says.
Noteworthy in this context, too, is her serious yet supple artistic temperament and taste for the experimental, not always a quality associated with classically trained musicians.
Kuan’s job was to lead the orchestra in Glass’s insistent seven-movement score while keeping it synchronized to a video depicting the cosmos. The venue was an enormous, hangar-like steel structure designed for constructing a collider, not concertizing. Acoustics were problematic. “Instead of a platform, we were on the floor,” Kuan explains. “The two sides of the orchestra felt like they were a mile apart. I’m watching eighty musicians spread out all over the place, I’m watching the score and I’m watching the video.”
And trying not to be distracted by the nine hundred policemen and snipers scattered around the building. But the objective was to make music. So Kuan did. “The musicians were wonderful,” she says. “The difficult thing about this piece from the orchestra’s standpoint is that they have to be incredibly flexible. If we’re behind, we have to catch up to the video.
“It’s tricky. At one point, for example, the clarinet sounded absolutely beautiful. And it’s natural, based on the space and what you hear: the clarinetist wanted to take a little bit of time. He sounded so beautiful, I let him. We were in the moment, just being there, somehow letting something magical be expressed. Except then we were many frames behind.
“The music and the images support one another wonderfully in this piece. But you can’t sacrifice the music for the visual effect. You have to let those moments of beautiful sound happen.”
A week after Kuan’s journey to the center of CERN, she was back at work with the Seattle Symphony. Typically, an associate conductor spends two years with an orchestra and then moves on; if they really like you, you may get a third, bonus, year. Kuan’s now in the thick of year three. The fall and early winter months are the busiest time for her, as she is called upon to be especially productive in all three of her main areas of responsibility: education, rehearsal support for the music director and public performances with the orchestra.
As a key player in Seattle Symphony’s education program, Kuan frequently conducts children’s and family concerts and visits local schools and community groups. “Music really connects with us on a very fundamental level,” she says. “It’s like fine tea or yoga. The more you experience, the more you understand. And the more you are changed by it.”
Kuan is enthusiastic about this part of her job, not only because she is a zealous educator, eager to make music accessible and concertgoing memorable and fun, but also because this is how she discovered her vocation — as a high school student attending the concert of an orchestra visiting her school.
As a child, Kuan took piano lessons. It was a natural part of the proper upbringing for a girl of the middle class in Taipei. Neither of her parents had any particular affection for, or knowledge of, music. Kuan says she is still working on her father, a retired businessman. He is, perhaps, the model for her approach to adult outreach. Her credo:
“It’s never too late. You can come and enjoy anytime.”
Kuan also studied ballet, as little girls do, and this might have been an alternative artistic career path: when she was in third grade, her ballet teacher tried to convince her parents to enroll her in a dance conservatory. Her dad said no to his young daughter leaving home. Kuan’s grace and assured fluidity on the podium, her sensual pleasure in the music, offer a glimpse of what she might have looked like as a grown dancer.
Coincidentally, Kuan’s first job out of school was conducting the New York City Ballet’s Balanchine production of The Nutcracker. She later led Prokofiev’s Prodigal Son for one of Peter Boal’s final performances before he retired as a dancer. This month Kuan makes her debut with the Pacific Northwest Ballet, where Boal is artistic director. Completing one particular circle in her life, Kuan will conduct several performances of . . . The Nutcracker.
Kuan’s grace and assured fluidity on the podium, her sensual pleasure in the music, offer a glimpse of what she might have looked like as a grown dancer.
Also this month, Kuan conducts the Seattle Symphony in a program featuring Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1, Winter Dreams, written when the composer was about Kuan’s age. “Being a musician is about making music,” she says. “But just as much about living. Experiencing life. How can you interpret Tchaikovsky’s world without having had any sense of loss, any sense of rejection, of having held a secret that you can’t tell anyone?
“Conducting is really a re-creative art. You try to get into the composer’s head and figure out what he or she was saying through the music. But not only what Tchaikovsky wanted to say in 1881. I’m also thinking about if he were alive today, how would he want this piece performed? These are two slightly different things. The emotion is the same, though. Hope is the same today as it was two hundred years ago.”
Kuan’s precocity in probing deep and dark mysteries of life and death was on display in Benaroya Hall last spring, as she led massed orchestral and vocal forces in a heartrending Mozart Requiem that was a highlight of the Seattle Symphony season.
“Carolyn is an extraordinary talent,” says Seattle Symphony music director Gerard Schwarz. “She came to Seattle with the attitude that all conductors must have, which is a zest for continual learning and growing. She also has humility. She understands that we all have a lot to learn. So many conductors think they know it all. She doesn’t think that way. And that’s the reason I admire her so much.”
Kuan attends every orchestra rehearsal. She sits in the auditorium, following the score and taking notes on questions of instrumental balance that are difficult for Schwarz to discern from his vantage point onstage. He calls out to her after running through a composition. She dashes up to the stage and they consult, quickly, in efficient shorthand that implies a trusting partnership.
Kuan also understudies the conductor: she must be prepared to step in, at the last minute if necessary, for Schwarz and guest conductors, on every piece on every program of the symphony season. It’s a mountain of work. “Studying takes up the bulk of my time,” says Kuan.
The influential conductor and teacher Nadia Boulanger once said, “I’ve been a woman for a little over fifty years and have gotten over my initial astonishment. As for conducting an orchestra, that’s a job where I don’t think sex plays much part.” Nevertheless, gender equity on the podium has yet to be achieved.
Ask Kuan if women in music today face an uphill battle and she answers the question with a question: “What do you think?” She is a protégé of Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony and the first woman to head a leading U.S. orchestra. Alsop’s appointment in 2007 was famously controversial. “The thing that Marin always tells me,” says Kuan, “is you can’t think about it. Yes, I am female. I’m also Asian. And I am young. At least that will change.”
Alsop has taught Kuan and guided her career at Santa Cruz’s Cabrillo Festival and in Baltimore, where Kuan guest conducted several weeks last season. “Carolyn is very high energy and intelligent,” notes Alsop. “She continues to challenge herself to always be better. This is a difficult business, but Carolyn has the qualities needed to be very successful.”
Kuan is disciplined and determined, as assertive as she is appealing. She’s been rebellious for as long as she can remember. While in the U.S. for the first time on a summer exchange program in junior high school, she applied to a boarding school in Massachusetts without her parents’ knowledge. Once accepted, she announced that she was leaving home. She did, at fourteen, and has been back only for occasional visits.
Who is her greatest influence among conductors? “Let’s focus on the dead ones,” she replies with political canniness, naming Leonard Bernstein, who was Marin Alsop’s teacher. “For his conviction, his emotion, his brilliance as a person,” she explains. “So rarely in the history of music do you have in one body a great composer, a great conductor, a brilliant educator and a tremendous intellect.”
Kuan’s next step on the road to becoming a musical polymath, combining her interests in education, outreach and performance, is tied to her heritage: she will conduct a concert called “Celebrate Asia!” in Benaroya Hall on January 16. Seattle Symphony, led by Kuan, will perform alongside the Seattle Youth Symphony, whose membership is about 40 percent Asian. Remarkably few of these kids (or their families) currently attend Seattle Symphony concerts; this event is a first attempt to increase their participation.
Also in January, Kuan will conduct her third Chinese New Year concert in San Francisco. She has additional guest dates booked both in the U.S. and abroad. With the end of her Seattle Symphony tenure on the horizon, she’s uncertain where she will be living and working at this time next year.
But no sign of indecision was on view in early October, when Kuan strode onto the podium before the Garfield High School orchestra in the Central District. Wearing jeans and a black sweater, her hair in a ponytail, she looked hardly older than many of the students, but she has the unmistakable aura of achievement.
“Most of my colleagues at Peabody Conservatory had such a strong sense of ego,” she says. “They thought they were great. I’m confident but I’m not overconfident. For me it’s always been more about discovery. Music is supposed to move you, take you to a different world. That’s what I strive to do. To be completely in the music.”
It was Kuan’s first rehearsal for a performance by the Garfield musicians in Benaroya. She didn’t waste even a moment in small talk. She raised her baton, patiently scanned the ensemble, then gave the downbeat to launch the second movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique.
As the final chord resonated in the music room, Kuan beamed. “Yeah, there you go!” she exclaimed. “But it was way too serious. Have some fun.”