Believing in the future of beautiful music with 'Les Préludes' conductor Jung-Ho Pak
The end of the Interlochen Arts Camp season is here, but not without its annual conclusion — the final WYSO concert of the summer, paired with the yearly performance of Franz Lizst's "Les Préludes".
The WYSO will perform Sergei Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet," as well as "Creation" by Tonya Wind Singer.
Conductor Jung-Ho Pak will take the podium for both parts of this final concert.
He spoke with Classical IPR about his work with young musicians and the pieces he'll bring to the Interlochen Bowl this Sunday.
Listen to the full interview or read the edited transcript below.
Listen to IPR's live broadcast the concert, or see Jung-Ho Pak and the World Youth Symphony Orchestra, Interlochen Philharmonic, World Youth Wind Symphony and a selection of Interlochen Arts Camp dancers in person on Sunday, August 6 at 7:30 pm EDT.
Nancy Deneen: How would you describe the differences and similarities in conducting professional ensembles versus younger musicians in a student ensemble?
Jung-Ho Pak: Boy, I think that question depends on when you asked me. When I was in my 20s, I would have said a huge difference. I would have said that students don't necessarily have all of the life experience. They don't have the technique. They don't have the understanding of what it's like to play in an orchestra. And then when you work with professionals, they don't necessarily have the same kind of innocence and the same kind of wide-eyed optimism, but I learned early on that that's not true.
Young people can play with incredible sophistication if they're expected to do so. And professional musicians are all 16 years old, 17 years old in their hearts. And it is my role, if not my job, to actually make them believe again and to invite them. That means treating them with tremendous respect and that same kind of Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland kind of, "let's put on a show type of, of enthusiasm."
So, now that I can say it, many years later, that I try to treat the students with the same level of professionalism, while still waking them up to what it means to be a professional.
Just giving them that sense of: you come to rehearsals prepared. You don't learn the music in rehearsal. You play with consistency and accuracy. But, when I work with professional musicians, I treat them as if we're all playing in the same sandbox. They're just all great human beings.
ND: What do you want students to consider as some of them are preparing to decide on whether to pursue music at the next level, whether it's college and possibly a professional career after that?
JP: That is a conversation that I think every student should have. I've had the honor of serving on wonderful conservatories: at USC in Southern California and San Francisco Conservatory. And even here at Interlochen, that conversation, the talk about what the realities of how many jobs are available, what does it take to win a job? What does it take to keep a job?
The biggest question of all is what does it take to be happy?
It is not a foregone conclusion that after you win a job, even with a major orchestra, you know, that happiness is, and joy and bliss and satisfaction is automatically given. And so, I think that's part of the discussion that I try to have with the students, is that you have to ask yourself now, before you go down too far the path: why are you a musician?
Are you a musician because you don't like math? Or you don't like social studies? Or you don't like science? Are you a musician because your parents want you to do it? Your teachers expect you to do it? Are you a musician because you're good at it? Now, that you would think, okay, well that's the reason. No, not necessarily.
Just because you have a certain facility to play an instrument well doesn't mean that it's going to make you happy. I know a lot of musicians who studied very assiduously and then became businesspeople, lawyers, gardeners and then they still play and they still love it. Who's to say that that isn't the ideal situation? So we try to have a kind of an existential awareness.
ND: Has a student ever approached you about looking even further ahead and asked you about becoming a conductor?
JP: Yes. I get a good percentage of people. And if you were just to look passively, observing a conductor, it's a lot of fun.
I mean, you're waving your arms, you're getting exercise, you're telling people what to do, you get imagine how the music gets imprinted on other people. There's so many things. It's a very rarefied supervisory role that's very emotional at the same time. And so there's something very seductive about wanting to be a conductor.
I get it. And I fell into that trap too. But I think if you're a good boss or even a good parent, you realize that you get the most out of people when it's not about you. When it's truly either about the work that we're doing or about the people you're serving. I just spent two glorious hours with these young musicians this morning and trying to cajole them and convince them that who they are is who they should bring to the concert stage or to the rehearsal as well.
Sometimes, it's funny, you have a break at the rehearsal after an hour, and then they'll be yelling, and running and laughing and hugging and being alive! And I said, "why don't you bring that here when you're playing?"
I think as a conductor, that your role is to make everyone's lives around you better, not to feed your own ego. That's one of the things that I tried to tell them is that it's not about control, but it's about making the world a better place.
ND: The concert repertoire for this week includes Sergei Prokofiev's 'Romeo and Juliet.' For those performing it, and for those listening to it, what are the things about that piece that they should know?
JP: Oh, this is a young person's piece — literally and artistically.
It is about two very, very young star-crossed lovers. And I just was reminded by the orchestra — I said, "Do you know how old Juliet is? She's 13 years old!" Of course, today it'd be very problematic, but if you just look at it from a very conceptual point of view, it's about young people and the idealism and their belief that they follow their heart.
I've always enjoyed doing this piece with youth orchestras because I can tell them, "imagine what it's like to be in love for the first time. Imagine what it's like to be challenged with your parents and to be passionately thrown into something." This is the time for them to understand that and to believe it and rebel and just believe in yourself.
This is, I would argue, is Prokofiev's greatest ballet. This is where he really shines. Yes, we love his symphonies, Symphony No. 5 and his concerti. All of his music is brilliant. But truly, he shines when he's telling a story.
He's a storyteller. And so that is what I would really ask people when they come and hear this beautiful piece of music is sit back listen.
You're basically hearing a John Williams score come alive. You know how John Williams' music is so incredibly satisfying. You don't need to have Harry Potter or or Luke Skywalker in front of you. It is complete. It is a satisfying meal. It has all the nutritional elements. The same thing with his ballet music. There's nothing missing. It's equal to Stravinsky's Firebird and Rite of Spring.
ND: And then you're also performing "Creation" by Tonya Wind Singer.
PK: Yes, this may seem like an interesting pairing. When I have done Native American music, what's really important to me is that the composer is Native. And in this case, Tonya Wind Singer, is based in Phoenix and has had quite an awakening recently.
She's an incredibly virtuosic, masterful composer. She writes music with an understanding of all of the beauty of Debussy and the harmonic and rhythmic mastery of all the great classical composers. And, and I proudly say that because this is not just convenience, this is choosing a composer who is just brilliant.
She also happens to be transgender, and has identified that way. So, This is a voice that needs to be on stage as an artist and as a person in our society. I couldn't, I couldn't believe in this piece more.
It's called "Creation." I just had a wonderful conversation with her yesterday about the meaning of the piece.
Native Americans certainly don't have the same perspective, at least according to Tonya, of kind of a biblical "God created the earth in seven days and all of this from nothingness to everythingness." But rather, it is an acknowledgement of everything that exists in the world. It is a closer, more real relationship rather than one that is almost mythical or unimaginable.
It is a celebration and an acknowledgment of the world around us, and that completely illuminated the piece for me.
I think when people hear it, they will hear things like, similar to a traditional Native flute, or a powwow, or feel the rhythmic energy, or the songs that they sing — it all comes alive.
I want to trumpet it from the top of the mountains that composers, many composers, more than one, many, many North American, Native American composers need to be on our concert stage. We need to find them. We need to celebrate them.
ND: The concert's second half features "Les Préludes by Franz Liszt, and is performed by not only the World Youth Symphony Orchestra, but an expanded ensemble of hundreds of people. What challenges does this scenario present for you and for the student musicians?
JP: Well, just from a purely logistical, humanity on stage point of view, it's a cast of hundreds, which is something that many conductors don't have to deal with most of the time.
But here, when you combine two orchestras, the Interlochen Philharmonic, and the World Youth Symphony Orchestra, along with the World Youth Wind Symphony — All fabulous ensembles, you have three different groups of people who have taken three different journeys over six weeks. All of them had different conductors and different concerts and different repertoire. And now we come together at the last moment of the sixth week and putting them together.
From a conductor's point of view, your, the edges of the orchestra are not maybe 30 feet away. The edges of the orchestra are 60 feet away.
When I give a downbeat, people are looking through their telescopes at the conductor because I'm very, very small in front of them. Plus they have to listen across a huge expanse inside what we call The Bowl, The Interlochen Bowl, which is this beautiful A-frame structure. And so there's that just physicality of Samson bringing the columns together and just trying to keep everyone together and listening.
I had my first rehearsal yesterday and I was just amazed on how gracious they were. Because also, this is week six! There's a lot of hormones and a lot of energy and ya-yas that people want to get out. But everyone was quiet and listening and very respectful and focused. They honored me with their attention.
Musically, it is very difficult. It's like trying to drive an obstacle course for a sports car with a Mac truck. You're basically going around these cones and everything is the truck moves very slowly and very laboriously. But these guys are listening and being very, very responsive. And that is, that is what it's like for me, instead of driving a little speedboat, it is the Queen Mary.
ND: Jung-Ho Pak, thank you so much for sharing your insights and your passion about art and people and music.
JP: It is completely in my honor. And it's one of the reasons why I come back to Interlochen every year is that this is where you can actually believe in the future of beautiful music and our humanity.