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Schumann, Mozart, and Chin, with Lee and the BSO

In this collage photo, Earl Lee (left) wears a black suit and stands against a black background, holding his baton and smiling at the camera mischeviously. Eric Lu (right) wears a black suit jacket and a white shirt with his hands folded in front of him, smiling at the camera.
Courtesy of the artists
Conductor Earl Lee; pianist Eric Lu

Saturday, October 28th, 2023

In an encore broadcast, BSO Assistant Conductor Earl Lee conducts Unsuk Chin’s powerful tribute to Beethoven, subito con forza, and Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 2, as well as Mozart’s brooding Piano Concerto No. 20 featuring soloist Eric Lu in his Boston Symphony debut.

Earl Lee, conductor
Eric Lu, piano

Unsuk CHIN subito con forza
MOZART Piano Concerto No. 20, K. 466
Robert SCHUMANN Symphony No. 2

This concert was originally broadcasted on April 8th, 2023 is no longer available on demand.

Hear a preview with conductor Earl Lee using the audio player above and transcript below.


Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall with Earl Lee, Boston Symphony Assistant Conductor. Earl, thank you for a little bit of your time today, for your first subscription series concert here at the hall.

Earl Lee Thank you for having me. Such a pleasure.

Brian McCreath We're going to talk about the program, but I'm interested first in just hearing a little bit more about you, you know, how your life has led you to Symphony Hall here. You're a cellist. And so I'm interested in how that began for you as, I presume, a child, and then at what point it felt like, well, I really want to take up conducting, I want to see what that's about. Can you tell me what that journey was like?

Earl Lee Sure. A very long story short, I can tell you that I started on the piano when I was four in Korea. And my mother was a piano teacher, and therefore I hated playing the piano. So every possible reason that I could find to quit the piano was to pick up another instrument. And my elementary school had an orchestra, so I picked up the cello. I don't know why, but I did, and I loved it, and I kept playing it. And, actually, funny enough that my father, who was, who still is a huge fan of classical music, he's not a musician, but he was one of those people who always brought home new CDs or LPs or he even had a LaserDisc player, which is like the big daddy of DVDs. And I remember one day he brought home an LD called Yo-Yo Ma in Tanglewood. And I watched it, and I was completely shocked. I was so inspired that I told my parents shortly after that that I wanted to take cello seriously. So that kind of began my cello journey. I was, I think, maybe second grade or so, third grade. And then we moved to Canada. I pursued my cello studies, went to Curtis Institute of Music for undergrad, Juilliard, and all that.

And when I was young, he also brought home a lot of these concert videos of great symphony performances of [Herbert von] Karajan and [Leonard] Bernstein and so on. So I kind of grew up watching those on his lap and always was fascinated by that. Why does that guy conduct with his eyes closed and all that, and the whole mystic side of conducting.

And at one point I had a hand injury so kind of halted my cello playing. And then in that frame of time, I realized that music is something that I love and performance is something that I want to keep in my life. And conducting seemed so appropriate and I kind of just dove into it and started studying and got into schools and I, yeah, I went to the New England Conservatory and studied with Hugh Wolff. And funny enough, that was in 2012 or 13. And sometimes we would come to hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra rehearsals, and I was working on Schumann's Second Symphony as a student, and Lenny [Leonidas] Kavakos was conducting the Second Symphony with the BSO in 2013. And I remember I sat through the rehearsal, and that really gave me an assurance that I love this piece, and little did I know that I'll be conducting them this week. So it's kind of a crazy journey.

Brian McCreath That's fantastic. So at what time was that hand injury when you sort of began to think, Well, I still love performing, but I can't right now on the cello. So I want to look into conducting. Was that during college or was that earlier than that?

Earl Lee No, that was right after my grad school. So it was around like 200-, I would say 2008.

Brian McCreath Oh, okay. So you were you were well into a career, really, as an established cellist when you thought, "Well, maybe conducting will work out as well."

Earl Lee Yeah, I spent about two years recovering and I made some progress. But in 2010 or -11, somewhere around there, I just went into conducting. And then, you know, once you put your head into it, it's never ending, right? So it's been a crazy ride through.

Brian McCreath And is cello still part of what you do with your musical life, or is that kind of set aside now as you, because your time must be really taken up with a lot of conducting? I know you've got a lot of other concerts that you do outside of the BSO.

Earl Lee Yeah, often cello is just lonely furniture sitting in the corner of my apartment in New York. But sometimes I take it out to just play through the parts of the scores that you're studying. When I have time to really invest in learning a piece, it's actually really good. You know, sometimes people ask like, "How do you read a score so quickly?" And for me to really internalize that is just, take out my cello or on the piano. I just go part by part. And then sometimes I look at the score and play the part by part, or I just take out the parts and then look at the physical parts of what musicians are using so that I know what they're looking at and what it is like to have, like, page turn here or here, and how does it even look like, you know how does it articulate? So, you know, that's a great way that I approach my score study. So yeah, cello, sometimes I take it out, too.

Brian McCreath Fantastic. You mentioned Yo-Yo Ma and Karajan, these conductors and performers that you grew up watching with your dad. Are there particular pieces of music or composers who also sort of maybe lit an extra spark in you that led you into music?

Earl Lee Absolutely. Speaking of Yo-Yo Ma, there was, along with Yo-Yo Ma in Tanglewood LD that he brought home, he also brought home, same time that he brought home, an LD of, it was like a big Tchaikovsky year, and a bunch of superstars played. I think Perlman played something and Jessye Norman sang and Yo-Yo Ma played Rococo Variations. And I mean, this is when I was just starting off first position on the cello, and I didn't even know how, what was possible on the cello. And I watched that and it was just so mind blowing, like I didn't know that was possible, such an inspiration and shock that kind of stuck with me for a while. And that really just made me want to go into it.

Symphonically, out of many pieces that I love, actually, Schumann [Symphony No.] 2, funny enough that it's a piece of music that's very special to me, personally, because I told you a little bit about hand injury and, you know, as lightly I could talk about it now, during that time was very difficult, and every day was kind of emotional suffer for me. And also when I listen to it then, finding out that, although it's in C major mostly, that he went through a lot of hardship writing this piece, and you can hear the struggle. But then the last movement, he started feeling better writing it. And then you can hear this optimistic idea, and [it] kind of gave me hope listening to it during that time. So yeah, Schumann 2, along with other pieces, of course. There are pieces like Beethoven Symphony Three and all of them, you know, they're very special to me. But yeah, I would say Schumann 2 is one of the very dear pieces in my heart.

Brian McCreath That's wonderful. So let's talk about this program. And was Schumann 2 something that you specifically requested for this program? You went to the artistic minister or vice president for artistic planning, Tony Fogg, and you said, I'd really like to do Schumann 2 for my Symphony Hall subscription debut?

Earl Lee Yup. I asked him. And, you know, it's a notoriously difficult piece for conductors, Schumann 2.

Brian McCreath How so?

Earl Lee It's just hard. It's just hard. Actually, when [Chief Conductor of the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra] Alan Gilbert, he was here [at the] beginning of the year, and I was assisting his weekend, and he asked me, "What are you doing in your subscription?" And I said, "I'm doing Schumann 2." And he said, "Oh, you chose the hard one." I mean, it's known to be difficult. There are a lot of corners, especially in the Scherzo movement coming in and out of the Trio. There are a lot of ritardandos [slowing tempo changes] that are difficult to do. But you know, with such an amazing orchestra that, you know, we do it and they're great. It's a joy.

Brian McCreath Yeah, so the tempo changes in that second movement, not to mention, I mean, of course, the BSO can just grab this and eat it for lunch, but still, that is devilishly hard, for the strings especially.

Earl Lee Yeah.

Brian McCreath And that's where I wonder if maybe some of your cello preparation comes in, where you might go through that part just to remind yourself what it's like to play this thing as you stand in front of the orchestra and have to navigate those tricky tempo changes while they're navigating this cascade of notes that's coming across their stands, right?

Earl Lee Yeah, yeah. I mean, cello playing is definitely is a good fact check. You know, apart from Schumann, conducting, we spend a lot of time on the desk, right? And speaking for myself, maybe [for] other people it's different, sometimes I find myself the ideal tempo that goes through my head is always, often very fast because you're kind of, you're not physically playing them, and then you're like, Oh, that's and you're, you know, I'm beating it. And then there's all this time in between that people have to play and filling with the notes. So as a conductor, oftentimes I find myself that my tempo is a little too fast in my head. And it's a way to fact check. Like I take out my cello, of course, I haven't practiced for years, so it's not in a good shape, but, you know, I kind of remember how I used to play it, and then I kind of see how it physically feels. And then I tell myself, nope. [laughs]

Brian McCreath I'm sure that the orchestra players appreciate that you do that little bit of a fact check to keep things in line and recalibrate what you need to to make it playable, but also musical.

Earl Lee Yeah, I hope so. I don't, you know, I don't tell them anything like that, but, you know, it's, yeah . . .

Brian McCreath Yeah. But then, the other challenges of the Schumann, I wonder, you're describing challenges of tempo changes and of course the technique and everything. But it also strikes me as a piece that demands a kind of attention to balance that a lot of other pieces may not need quite as much because of the layers of themes and textures in Schumann. Is that something that feels accurate to you?

Earl Lee Yeah, you're right. With Schumann, I mean, there is a saying that Schumann wasn't the greatest orchestrator and, you know, some truth to that, but also not. But there are, it's very dense. The piece itself is very dense. And yeah, it's . . . You have to do a lot of work to layer things out and and balance things. Actually, it's really interesting if you hear the old recording of George Szell and [the] Cleveland [Orchestra], the famous Schumann symphony cycle recording, everything sounds so clear, and you are thinking like, "How is this possible?" And this was old time that conductors tweak the score. So he actually rewrote, I mean, he re-orchestrate a couple of spots to make the balance work better. And of course, we don't do, you know, that's not a trend that we follow these days. But I mean, that's how, not tricky, but how much work we have to give in to layering. So you're absolutely right about that.

Brian McCreath Right, right. Well, let's talk about the concerto, the Mozart Number 20, the D minor. I assume this is Eric Lu's choice for the piece. Is it a concerto that you've conducted before?

Earl Lee It was my first time conducting. I mean, I've heard it many times. I think I must have played it, too. It's such an amazing piece of music, I mean, apart from all the other great concertos that he wrote. But it's so personal and driving. There's so much emotion. Yeah, I love it.

Brian McCreath Well, there's something that happened in rehearsal that I want to ask you about, because the opening movement of this begins with strings. And it's not just a simple, like, statement of a melody. It's a kind of an unsettled, almost rhythmic figure more than any kind of a melody with the strings. And I was sitting there listening to the orchestra, and you started, the first time was beautiful. It sounded really lovely. Then you went back to do it again. You said something to the orchestra and you maybe demonstrated, maybe use your hands or something. I don't know what it was, but there was so much more definition in that rhythm. You did something. And I'm curious about, what does one need to bring that level of clarity? Because it was a marked difference from the first time that you went through it.

Earl Lee Well, thank you. You know, I'm trying to remember what I did. But to be honest with you, with this orchestra and orchestra at this level, if you just play it second time, it's always much better [Brian laughs]. It's true.

Brian McCreath Yeah.

Earl Lee You know, even Maestro Andris Nelsons or a lot of people who come through here, and, of course, myself, I don't, and seasoned conductors after the first run through of a piece, they don't ask for balance because immediately the second time, it settles much better. Because usually first time I mean, we know this piece, they know this piece, but still, you know, you practiced, but first time playing together a while and, kind of just does kind of is in the air and immediately settles the second time. So I think I talked a little bit about, actually, not even the clarity, I talked about, you know, certain part of the syncopation to come out a little bit more lyrical. And I didn't talk about any clarity, but they kind of, I think, did that on their own, which is exactly what always happens with this orchestra.

Brian McCreath That's great. That's great. Have you worked with Eric Lu before?

Earl Lee This is my first time. I have a lot of upcoming engagements with him, which I'm really excited about. Next season in Ann Arbor, where I'm a Music Director, Eric will come and play Rachmaninoff [Piano Concerto No.] 3 with us, and I'm also going to Vancouver Symphony next season with him, and we'll be performing together Schumann Piano Concerto.

Brian McCreath Fantastic. What do you hear in Eric's playing that lends itself especially to this D Minor Mozart concerto? What does he bring to this piece from your point of view, as you're with the orchestra listening to him play his part.

Earl Lee You know, Eric's playing to me is so soulful and so grounded, it's so grounded and very earthy kind of deep musicianship that he brings out and lyricism that kind of, it's very inner in so many ways that it just brings this incredible beauty out of this piece particularly.

Brian McCreath Yeah, yeah, that's a great way to put it. Earthy. I love that. That description for his playing. That's really lovely. So, Unsuk Chin's subito con forza. Tell me about your choice for this piece to begin the concert.

Earl Lee Well, you know, I was always a big admirer of Unsuk Chin's music. I've done this particular piece before, but this is the first piece of her work that I'm conducting, and I'm a Korean background. And so is she . . . And I always had a huge admiration, even apart from that. But I always was looking for a chance to do it.

And this is a very short piece but packed with energy. And it's basically based on Beethoven's different tunes. And it's kind of like a mad party of Beethoven's tunes. You know that it's kind of an obsession. You hear one tune and then kind of another one kind of creeps in, but, so you don't really know. And then at one point, it just infestated the whole, and then it goes into this other section. And then the Emperor Concerto comes in, and then the Coriolan [Overture] comes in, and then the Leonore comes in. I mean, it's just, it's complete madness. And she's such a genius composer to just mend all this in 5 minutes.

It's a very difficult piece, but of course, we're BSO here, so they're just so amazing. We work quite hard at it and really looking forward to bring it . . . in fact, this whole program, although there is no Beethoven in the program, yeah? But all three pieces have Beethoven elements. Of course we just talked about Unsuk's subito con forza, based on Beethoven's tunes. The Mozart Piano Concerto [No. 20], the most famous cadenza, that Eric also plays, is by Beethoven. You can actually tell once you hear that, when you hear the first movement cadenza, you can immediately hear that that's Beethoven's cadenza, right? And the Schumann Symphony [No. 2] has a very beautiful song cycle of Beethoven quoted in the last movement, An die ferne Geliebte. It kind of comes in the middle of the movement, and all of a sudden it's just this beautiful Lied [German song] about distant lover that comes in and it's so special. So, yeah, Beethoven kind of holds this entire program together.

Brian McCreath It's a great thread, and I imagine that that's basically coincidence, almost serendipity, that it's not that anybody planned for this thread to be all the way through this concert, but that's how these pieces line up.

Earl Lee Yeah, actually with Schumann's symphony and Unsuk's piece, I kind of thought about it, and then when Mozart was chosen, that was a bit of a coincidence, I think that even the cadenza of the Mozart concerto that will be played was by Beethoven, so . . .

Brian McCreath Fantastic. Well, you mentioned before that you're Music Director in Ann Arbor, you're coming on to the end of your first season in Ann Arbor, and I wonder if you can encapsulate kind of what that means for you as a conductor. What does it mean for a conductor to be a Music Director for an orchestra? And what opportunity does it present to you that you haven't had before?

Earl Lee First of all, you know, it's a big responsibility because you have to work together with your team and the artistic team, the staff, and everyone to really make sure that we bring something special for the community and also for the orchestra's growth. So, you know, there is a little more of how the season looks like and how can we balance things here and there. And also I always think about choosing repertoire to . . . It's kind of like the food or nutrition for the musicians, yeah? Because we, you know, we need certain things to, certain repertoire, different things for different orchestra, because every orchestra is different. But, you know, thinking about what would be good for us to perform, what does the community need, what have they liked, and what would be refreshing for them. You know, all this balance goes into putting a season together. So, yeah, there is a big responsibility that I really enjoy.

Brian McCreath Has anything come to you or anything happened in this first season that's a surprise or something that you didn't quite expect to happen or a particular way of growth that you didn't quite see coming?

Earl Lee No, you know, it was kind of a, not kind of, it was, starting from very first week, even before I became a Music Director, we, I feel like we kind of clicked so well. You know, being a conductor, we see so many different orchestras, and I think it's kind of like meeting a new person, because every orchestra, even as a group of people consisting an orchestra, every orchestra has a DNA of their own, and their characteristic, and what they're looking for, and how well they work with certain types of personalities the conductors bring. And so, in other words, it's almost like when you're meeting an orchestra for the first time, it's almost like a blind date, that you have heard and learned about each other, but not personally. And then the first rehearsal is always a bit kind of nervous for me because you don't know how things will go. And for me, with Ann Arbor, it was kind of like we clicked together right away, and I knew that it would be really special if I could work with them. And I became Music Director so I'm really happy. So we've had a great season so far. Coming up in two weeks, we're doing Mahler's Second [Symphony], so I'm really looking forward to that.

Brian McCreath Anytime Mahler's Second is on the program, no matter what orchestra, it's a special occasion.

Earl Lee Yeah. Yeah, certainly.

Brian McCreath It's a great way to end your first season there. Well, well, congratulations on the position, and I'm looking forward to hearing about next season with Ann Arbor. But also congratulations on your subscription debut here with the BSO. Thanks a lot for your time, Earl. I appreciate it.

Earl Lee Thank you so much.