BL&D Interview: Carolyn Kuan

Carolyn Kuan, the conductor and music director of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and all-around star, was kind enough to sit down with us to talk about her beginnings in music, her influences and upcoming events that all Hartford residents should check out.

Interview by Onyeka Obiocha


What got you into music direction, and how did you end up in Hartford?

I came to America when I was 14 years old by myself. My middle school in Taiwan and my high school in America were sister schools for a few years, so I was one of the few fortunate kids to come here for summer study. And [I put it] in quotations because I think it included a week [of] learning English, and a week going to Disneyland and other things [laughs]. Hey, Disneyland is an American experience. [laughs] And I just remember like, even from the first day, I remember the teacher saying, "Feel free to ask questions". And that was like a huge lightbulb moment because in Taiwan, it's very much memorization-based. The teacher lectures at you, and you memorize things. There's no questions. There's no disagreeing with the teachers. And here I was, first day in American classes, and the teacher says, "Feel free to ask questions. Feel free to disagree with me. If you don't understand anything, ask!" and I was like, 'Wow, this is great. This is how education should be. This is how one should learn. So I kind of secretly applied to the high school while I was there behind my parents back [laughs].

So I went home - and I was really rebellious as a 12 year old, 13 year old; I can't remember - and I got in a fight with my parents one day and it was also the day that I got the acceptance letters, so I'm like, "I'm leaving" [laughs]. Ultimately, they came around and they were smart in knowing had they kept me at home, I would've been totally rebellious and ended up doing God knows what. So they let me go. So I came here at 14. Then, I went to Smith College, so I've always kind of been around the area and as an Asian girl, of course, I always played the piano. That's like what you have to do. So I've always had an interest in music, but I always thought that was something you did for fun and never once in my life thought this is what you do as a profession. 

When did that evolve? From when you started playing the piano to realizing that this could become a profession?

When I went to Smith College, I was trying to do a music major [and] I was trying to do an economics major and computer science. I was trying to do like a triple major thing. Did not work out because a lot of classes were in conflict. But because Smith was so small - and I also sang seriously for many many years and I was playing the piano and in the choir. So the Director said, "Can you help me do some sectional?" What that means is take the one section away to practice. And because the school is so small, I ended up doing that for the orchestra. So one day, I came to school and my conductor pulled me to the side and said, "We see you doing so many sectionals for us. Would you have any interest [in this]?" Four Smith alums decided to give four students $5,000 that summer to go study. I was supposed to go back home. I actually had an internship at Citi Bank in Taiwan. And I thought, 'Internship in Taiwan. I can be in business anytime, but I only get these few years in music and to immerse in it before going back home to be in business.' So I talked my father and said, 'You know what - let me go do this. Someone is giving me $5,000 to go study music. Let me go see what this is about.'

So I ended up studying conducting. Actually, I came to [University of Hartford] that summer. So I spent a month at Hart - back then, there was a conducting institute - and then spent a month at Tanglewood and then spent a month at Tusk learning German and French. When the alums give you money, you have to have something to show for it so come the next semester, they put me in front of the orchestra to conduct. So that was kind of like how it started. And the alum said, "Well, you seem really talented. You should explore this." So I applied for graduate school and got a full scholarship. So I call my father [and say,] "Look dad, I can always be in business. Someone is giving me a full ride to study conducting. I don't know what this conducting thing is about, but let me go find out. I'm really curious." I did that for two years and then got a full scholarship to go to really one of the best conducting schools in America. They actually give you a full orchestra to practice. So when you think about it, how does one learn how to conduct?

Yeah that was my next question, so please explain [laughs].

Like if you're a pianist, you have a piano. You can practice all you want. Even if you don't have a teacher, nowadays you have YouTube [laughs]. You can practice a lot. If you're a violinist, same thing. Anyone, if you have an instrument. So the instrument for a conductor is the orchestra. So there's almost no way to practice. So the only way you can practice is with a group. So the reason I went to Peabody Conservatory which was part of John Hopkins, and they actually give you a whole orchestra to practice. It was really prestigious.

So again, I call my father. "Dad, you know.... [laughs]" So I think when I got the Hartford job is when I finally [decided this could be my profession]. From the Peabody, my first job was with the New York City ballet. I conducted my first Nutcracker at the Lincoln Theatre without any rehearsal whatsoever. Cause they don't need rehearsal. They do this every year for 50 shows. So I was the only one who'd never done it, so I don't get rehearsal [laughs]. Went from that to North Carolina to Seattle, and then I started conducting all over the world and ended up here as a Music Director.

How did you end up in Hartford, though? You were in Seattle and all over the world and all these places and then come back to Hartford? Like, starting off in the Lincoln Theatre. Why Hartford?

The way things work in our profession is - like I said, how do you learn how to conduct? You really have to learn in public. Every experience you get, you try to learn. So I can say, the best analogy I can give you - even in school when they give you a whole orchestra to practice - it's like asking a professional race car driver to learn how to race cars on a 10 year old Honda. It's just not the same. Professional orchestras behave very differently. It's like getting into the best car you possibly can, and you can do things. You can race. So learning how to drive and learning how to race is very different. 

So in order to really learn how to conduct, you need experience. You need opportunities to be in front of a professional orchestra. So I would say even coming out of school going into my first job with New York City Ballet, I was still very much learning. And going to North Carolina, my job was to conduct education concerts all over the state for fourth graders. So in that case, I was conducting the same piece of program like 40 times a year. So I would say that all of that and even in Seattle [when] I was an Associate Conductor. All of those when you're sort of the artist in residence, Assistant Conductor, Associate Conductor, you're still very much learning how this thing works and how this industry works. Being a Music Director really is a completely different job. 

Prior to the interview, you said getting the job in Hartford was very much like an American Idol experience. Can you talk more about the process.

Yeah, I don't remember exactly [and] you should get the information from somebody else, but for most of these Music Director positions at places like the Hartford Symphony, you would usually have 300+ people applying for one single job. So the resume would come in and they'd look at the resume and narrow it down. Then there's the lengthy process: the process of interviewing. So they narrow it down from your resume, and the next thing they probably ask you to do is submit video. They want to see you. Then, they'd want to do a phone interview with you.

In our case, we also have to do a live interview. I remember coming up to Yale and doing a video thing so they could record it. And throughout all that, it was a two-year process for the orchestra and they had this website where the audience could chip in and comment on every concert and rate their favorites. I think they were really thinking [about] really engaging the community.

So after the American Idol-style interview, you're at the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. The first Asian-American, the first woman, the youngest ever. How was that initially? Was there a learning curve? What did you gather from that?

No, not really. They wouldn't have picked me for the job if I didn't have all the skills already, so I'd say some point when I was in Seattle when I would say I really knew what I was talking about [laughs]. I would say somewhere along the lines in Seattle is when I really started to gather this idea that symphony orchestra should be there to serve the community. So I think that's a change from the expectation of symphony orchestra from like 20 years ago when we'd play great music and you'd come listen to this great music. I think for me, it's really the opposite. I think of Symphony Orchestra as an organization that is intricately involved in the community and serving the community.

So for example, my very first season here, the Mayor at the time was talking about bringing more people to Downtown Hartford. And right away, my reaction was, 'Let us help. Let us be a part of what makes this community great'. So we came up with this idea of partnering with five restaurants downtown, and talking with the chef and having each of them tell us what their signature dishes were and coming up with a piece of music that when you hear the music, you can see the dish or taste the dish. And vice versa, I'd give them a piece of music and they would create a dish inspired by the music. So Salute, I think their signature dish that they gave me was the Rosa pasta, and literally when I heard it, I said, "Wow, that sounds like Moon River". When you listen to 'Moon River', it just sounds like the sauce. It was just really rich. And we did that for five years, and just working with different restaurants. For the concerts, people would come and you can't help but go to the restaurants and try out the dish. We also do cross-promotion and things like that. 

Another example, we're always talking about conservation and what each city can do, so we played a piece called Life: A Journey Through Time. This photographer Frans Lanting spent about 7 years around the world documenting life, and it's just stunning photography with music full of glass. And at the concert, we talk about that. I really get that feeling of getting a sense of our world and the importance of conservation, and we partner with a lot of conservation groups in town. So things like that. I really think that the Hartford Symphony is constantly innovating. We're not really what people think about when they think of a symphony orchestra. I think it was second season - I can't remember - but we're also trying to think, 'What do people want to hear? How do we engage our audience? How do we take them on a journey?' Sure, it's the things that my grandmother use to say: "I like what I know, and I know what I like" [laughs].

But I really think that people who live in this area also have a tremendous sense of curiosity. But you have to take them on a journey. So share with them an evening that makes sense to them. We did a program that involves Brahms' symphony. Actually we have a whole concert of Brahms' coming up, but i paired that with beatboxing and it's something about the beatboxing that opens up very similar to the Brahms opening. So when you listen to them together and last season, we really wanted to connect with the Jewish community so we actually had a piece that had 10 shofars. Shofars are a very traditional instrument often used for high holidays in the Jewish community, and that piece also had a bagpipe, a hyper-accordion, a comanche - a very traditional instrument - and a classical clarinet. So for me, it's really about a journey and how we engage with the community.


"I really think that people who live in this area also have a tremendous sense of curiosity. But you have to take them on a journey. So share with them an evening that makes sense to them."


How do you go about building out and selecting those pieces because that seems so intense. I would love to go out and try the best dishes in Hartford and make music around that cause that sounds amazing, but even getting embedded in the community that way, what's your process like in terms of discovery?

I think i start by thinking about all the people I'm serving and as a Music Director, I'm thinking about serving my audience and I'm thinking about serving the musicians. I'm thinking about serving the community. I'm constantly gathering. What do we need as a community and how do I create and curate a season that tries to serve as many people as possible while staying true to our mission. 

I know in the beginning, we were talking about master work versus the pops. It's interesting because last night, I was listening to the Young Musicians Foundation has something called 'Yeethoven', where they mixed six Kanye West songs and six Beethoven songs into a two-hour concert. Amazing.

Did you hear the whole thing?

No, I haven't heard the whole thing yet. Just snippets.


What I've heard sounds amazing. I'm a huge Kanye fan so it makes a lot sense to me. I'm interested because I know you do some of this in pops but in the next three to five years, what are the ways you can bring outside influences or more outside influences of popular culture into your music? And also what are you listening to?

Oh gosh, I listen to all sorts of things. Let's see what's on my iPod right now, I have Nightwish. It's a symphonic metal band. There's this french rapper called Stromae. He has fantastic stuff. I also listen to sort of the hip popular Japanese guitar. There's a group called Itchigani. So my range of things that I like to listen to are very wide [laughs]. Gosh, I wish I could show you my Spotify list and what I listen to. I just like a lot of different music, and I'm always thinking about how we can figure out ways to stay true to what some of our audience likes but also pushing the boundary constantly. Lin Zerling, Piano Guys - they're kind of like right in between. 2Cellos. And our concert, you can really start to see some of it depending on what concert you go. Our December concert, for example, we're doing music by Mozart, which is what a lot of our audience loves. In the middle, I'm throwing in a piece - a concerto - for violin and electric guitar.

And you know, again, trying to take people on a journey. Going back to what our community needs, I mentioned to Jeff that our holiday concert really has become a tradition in Hartford. You guys should come see that. You'll love it. It's one of those concerts that you almost can not love. It's holiday music but we have these amazing aerial cirqs. It's like cirque du soleil meets holiday music. It's absolutely thrilling to see. I mean, when you think about it however, just imagine cirq artists doing their thing without music. It's not as interesting. I mean, it's still impressive but it doesn't have poetry. But when you add the cirq performance to music and when you really coordinate it and choreograph it so the music gives it that extra meaning and beauty to what they're doing, then you have poetry. 

One thing that I'm hearing a lot is you're really intentional in building an immersive experience for your audience. Are there any artists that you hold in high esteem that you think do that well? What are your influences outside of music that kind of lend itself to what you craft onstage?

It's interesting, I think my background kind of speaks to it, right. I never intended to be a conductor. I never intended to be a musician. I just did because I love the music. I was supposed to be an investment banker who wanted to be a secret computer science person [laughs]. So I've always believed that music is life and life is music. You're a better musician if you're really in touch with the world, and I don't mean by politics [laughs]. I mean, that's important too but I mean by what artists are doing. I keep in touch with what the Wadsworth is doing, you know, what people [in general] are doing. It's interesting, and I like to keep my pulse on what's interesting in the world right now. What's technology doing? What's art doing?

I can't always find an exact path for what we're doing, but it's always something that's on my mind. So for example, we're thinking about starting a new series. We're thinking about starting a new series that's more of a closer immersive experience. So I'd say that Real Art Ways already has a very different vibe from what we have here. And I want us to have a concert and maybe stop in the middle, and have the audience ask questions. Maybe even have the audience in the middle of the room and ask questions. We can actually ask the community - and you can tell me some of these things - who are the artists [and] musicians doing different things? That have nothing to do with classical music? So we can showcase it and find parallels so when people come to our concerts can experience both. And I think a lot of people have the wrong impression of classical music, like it's stiff, it's old, it's outdated. It really is not. A lot of this music I like. The French rapper I was talking about before, he has this one song that he actually borrows from Bizet's Carmen opera. The music is great, but it's all about how you want to experience it. And I fully believe in the power of music and the power of classical music, but I hope people will give it a shot. But it's up to us to create the perfect environment for people to come and experience it.

As someone who has never been to an HSO concert, what should be my introduction? What's the first thing I should go see?

I think the holiday music is great. That's why I think it's so successful. I think the Playing with Food, if we were still doing it, would've been great even though this year, we're doing a Playing with Dogs. So if there's a lot of pet fans, that should be interesting. But I think that's what we should do. We should start a little tab of concerts as an intro. I also think that the new series that we're starting would be perfect.

I know for me, I have no background in classical music. I played the trumpet until maybe the eighth grade, and that's as far as my musical chops go. So this is very intimidating to me. I don't have the language to explain the music you're talking about but I can hear it. So I think it's something you guys should think about, even low-barren entry and come listen to the music. And if you don't get it, you don't get it but it doesn't matter. Just enjoy the experience.

Actually our opening concert, which was three sold out performances, would've been perfect for you. We should invite you guys. It was music by Rimsky-Korsakov and it was just the color. Sometimes you don't need to know anything about the music itself. There's nothing quite like hearing an 80-90 piece musician playing at that level. It's like watching an Olympic artist on stage. You can't see the details but the artistry comes through, and it's absolutely thrilling having that much sound coming at you. So I would say depending on the piece, 

What's one thing that you'd want people who read this and have probably never been to the HSO and gotten the full experience to take away from what you're trying to build?

I think to just come try it out. The symphony is an incredible place right to experience a lot of different things. The symphony is sort of parallel to the Music Director, and you can kind of see the amount of things that we offer. Come join part of the family, and check it out.