By Natasha Jacob
For Northwest Asian Weekly
Born in Taiwan, Carolyn Kuan is not only Seattle Symphony’s first woman assistant conductor, she is also the first Asian American to hold the position. On Jan. 22 Kuan is slated to conduct the symphony for Celebrate Asia!, an event which will feature violinist Chuanyun Li and instrumentalist Li Bo, who plays the Mongolian morin khuur.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I don’t think I had a singular goal. I wanted to be a ballerina, as I had been a serious ballet student, and a very good one as I recall. I also thought I wanted to be a fashion designer like my mother, a pianist, an actress — I distinctly remember being Snow White at a theatre camp! I knew I didn’t want to be a banker. However, somehow I ended up studying economics in college.
When did you first consider a career as a conductor? Who were your heroes?
Music has always been a hobby, a secret passion, but I didn’t seriously consider a career as a conductor until I was a student at the Peabody Conservatory.
About the same time, I attended Baltimore Symphony’s rehearsals of “Rite of Spring,” conducted by Marin Alsop. It was inspiring, electrifying, transforming, and so much more. Needless to say, I attended all of the performances, and Marin became my idol. Imagine my exhilaration when she became my mentor a couple of years later!
It seems like conducting is a fairly male-dominated pursuit. What is it like being a woman in the field?
Interestingly, my first experiences as an orchestral conductor took place while I was an undergraduate at Smith College. Smith is an all-women’s college and it didn’t occur to me at all that conducting is a male-dominated pursuit.
These days, it still isn’t something I think about much, unless I am talking to a reporter.
If you weren’t a conductor, what other careers would you want to explore?
If I weren’t a conductor, I would like to devote myself to the environment, or perhaps be a Zen master. As a race, we are destroying our planet at an alarming rate. At the same time, most people don’t take care of their “inner” environment.
Outside of classical music, what other types of music do you enjoy? If you were going to be stuck on a desert island, what would you bring with you?
Well, if I were going to be stuck on a desert island, I’d be sure to bring my iPod, which has my entire music collection! My iPod Touch, however, can’t hold as much music. Right now, it has all nine of Mahler’s symphonies, some Beethoven piano sonatas, “Der Rosenkavalier,” Harry Potter in German, and various contemporary pieces that I want to explore.
We’ve seen your name in headlines around the world. Where do you enjoy traveling to for work and/or pleasure?
One of my favorite places is the Orkney Islands (UK). The St. Magnus Festival in the summer has wonderful music. I love walking around town and seeing sheep and gorgeous, yet simple, scenery. I had the best fish and chips there, and when one leaves the pub at 2 a.m., it is still light out!
How did you get involved with Celebrate Asia? For you, what distinguishes it from other concerts?
I have been conducting the annual Chinese New Year Concert of the San Francisco Symphony since 2007, and it is a fantastic sold out ‘East meets West’ event every year. When I spoke about my experience to a [Seattle Symphony Orchestra] board member who later became the chair for this project, we thought it would be tremendous to do something similar in Seattle with the Seattle Symphony.
However, instead of ‘Chinese meets West,’ we wanted to include as many Asian cultures represented in Seattle as possible. It has truly been exciting to see Celebrate Asia! grow from just an idea, and it definitely has a very special place in my heart.
Everything about Celebrate Asia! distinguishes it from other concerts and from the music we perform; the soloists we present, to how the event engages and thrills the audience, and so much more. Perhaps the element that is most important to me is that it is by the community and for the community.
If you had to boil down the experience of attending Celebrate Asia! into three words, what would they be?
“Not to be missed!” Oh wait, that is four words. I think it would be “fun,” “thrilling,” and “otherworldly”!
What is the must-see element of this year’s concert on Jan. 22? Any tips for first-time attendees of Celebrate Asia?
That is like asking someone with 10 children which one they like the best! I think all the elements are wonderful and the entire event is a must-see. As for tips for first-time attendees of Celebrate Asia!, come with friends and just have a great time. ♦
Natasha Jacob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.