“You bring people together to make something beautiful as a group“: Holly Hyun Choe on the conductor’s power
A new generation is freeing classical music of its fossilised habits, transforming it into a dynamically inclusive art that reflects and celebrates the diversity of contemporary society. Because of its powerful symbolism, the role of the conductor has been a bulwark of the patriarchy and hence especially resistant to change. But women and people of colour are increasingly finding their way to the podium, enriching the field with fresh perspectives. Holly Hyun Choe, who will lead the Orchestral Academy at this summer’s DAVOS FESTIVAL, was guided by her own determination to choose this demanding career. Now based in Zurich, where she is assistant conductor to Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich’s music director Paavo Järvi, Holly Hyun Choe shared her story and her thoughts on the profession, career planning, and the role of women as conductors.
Interview by Thomas May
What role did classical music play in your life as you were growing up?
Holly Hyun Choe: There were no classical musicians at all in my family, so I never learned anything about music when I was a child. I was born in Seoul and grew up in the USA in Florida, Georgia and then Southern California. My dad had been a professional baseball player in Korea and actually wanted to raise me as a golfer. But when I was 13, I learned how to play clarinet on my own.
What attracted you to the clarinet?
As children we were introduced to different instruments at a petting zoo. The clarinet captured me from the beginning because it’s such a warm sound, very soothing and close to the human voice. I didn’t know what was the proper way to go about becoming a musician, but I decided to join the school band programme. So in order to get a head start in the summer, I bought a clarinet and a book explaining how to play it, which came with a CD.
How did your understanding of musical possibilities develop from your love of this instrument?
In Southern California, marching bands are a big deal. I played throughout high school in marching band programmes and became the drum major, learning how to conduct basic patterns. I went on to teach others every summer and decided I wanted to become a marching band director. From this I realised that the community aspect of music making was very attractive to me. As a conductor, that’s one of the foundational values that you should have. You bring people together to make something beautiful as a group.
How did you make the move from band ensembles to the classical realm?
I became the associate director of a clarinet choir in college and started getting other gigs to conduct bigger ensembles. The wind repertoire was the most revolutionary part of the whole journey toward conducting, because I had come from such a different background of playing jazz and pop. I didn’t know anything about classical music until I was in my 20s. The chronology of my classical music learning was completely backwards: I went from the contemporary to early 20th century, backwards in time. It wasn’t until I started at the New England Conservatory of Music in 2015 that I started concentrating on earlier classical pieces. And even then, it was only after I was recruited in 2017 by Johannes Schlaefli to pursue my master’s at the Zurich University of the Arts that I first realised I had a shot at becoming a professional orchestral conductor, because all of his students were doing so well.
My advice is to find out more about the female composers and pieces that you feel passionate about presenting – not just because they’re written by female composers.
But it seems you were acquiring a lot of good practical experience from very early on, as opposed to musicians who are more enclosed in the academic environment.
For six years of my bachelor’s studies, I absorbed as much as I could, like a sponge, from small bits of podium time with a diverse group of people – with musicians like the Golden State Pops Orchestra, which played music by leading film score figures. And then at Zurich University I started applying for fellowships like Marin Alsop’s Taki Fellowship for women conductors and also got to work with Jaap van Zweden.
What are some of the special insights you get about music from being a conductor?
I think every musician should learn how to conduct. Not for the sake of becoming the next maestro, but if you can learn just the basics of conducting, it’s so much easier to communicate with your conductor and you have a different way of approaching music; you hear things differently. So at the DAVOS FESTIVAL there will be some sessions with me teaching the musicians basics of conducting. I’m also always interested in interacting with the audience in open rehearsals, especially at summer festivals, because it’s so fascinating to see how pieces are put together. I enjoy explaining to the audience how we rehearse, what are the strategies and the psychology behind the musicians.
You’ve already been making a name as an advocate of contemporary composers. How do you approach a piece that is new?
I try to discover the composer’s point of view first. So I research the history of the composer and how the piece fits into their spectrum of growth. What is the purpose of the piece, its context? Was it written as a love message or for someone specifically as a commission? The more information you find out about how the piece came to be, the clearer the picture becomes. And then I try to go from the big picture to the form and then to smaller details, periods, and then phrase groups. With contemporary music I always find the orchestration and colour palette so interesting. There are so many more possibilities with contemporary music to make us more open-minded about how we experience sound, how we understand the purpose of art.
How important to you is programming women composers? If audiences are exposed to more music by women, do you think that will increase the demand to see more women on the podium in turn?
I think there is definitely a strong link. When an orchestra hires a female conductor, they usually also ask for a piece by a female composer. But it’s a problem if this becomes an obligation and isn’t motivated by the joy of introducing new pieces. After this era of Corona, I think we will see more and more programmes that are more diverse, outside of the box. There are so many good performances already of repertoire like the Beethoven cycle. So I think the purpose of livestreaming now is to give more space to living composers. My advice is to find out more about the female composers and pieces that you feel passionate about presenting – not just because they’re written by female composers.
What is your advice to young women conductors?
Female conductors get judged more harshly than when a male stands on the podium. The most important thing is to develop the mental strength to anticipate that and deal with it ahead of time. You also need a strong mentor to help sustain you through these experiences, because they can easily wear you down. I mean judgements like: “She only got the job because she was a woman” or “She’s in the competition because they need a female conductor to be there”. And I think you also have to define what success means for you and what are your goals. This needs to be very clear as early on as possible. Some people want the life of a Paavo Järvi or a Simon Rattle. And some people are happy working with an amateur orchestra. Everything has its pros and cons. Ultimately, I think you need to focus on the music. You will get tons of questions about what does it feel like to be a female conductor, etc. That communication to the outside world is very important. But also take every opportunity to communicate the message that goes beyond the issue of gender: the message that it should always be about the music. The key is to always stay grounded in the music and what you genuinely believe is your interpretation of the piece. If that is strong and you are a good musician, people will respect you
Programmes:Migration der Vögel
Thomas May is a freelance writer, critic, educator, and translator whose work has been published internationally. The English-language editor for Lucerne Festival, he also writes for such publications as The New York Times and Musical America.
Dieser Text erschien im DAVOS FESTIVAL Magazin 2/21.
Titelbild: Holly Hyun Choe © Eve Kohler