Mark Buller | 18 NOV 2020
I first met Jerry Hou back in 2015. Aaron Perdue was premiering my flute concerto at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University, and Jerry conducted the chamber orchestra. I was impressed by Jerry’s efficiency as a conductor, the care he took to ensure that everyone sounded their absolute best. There was one passage in particular that he focused on, carefully guiding the strings through a particularly tricky section. These student players were, frankly, already world-class, but under his direction they were making their way to a level I hadn’t thought possible while working on the piece.
I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Jerry conduct quite a few concerts now, and several of them have made it onto my own personal list of favorite concert memories. Jerry has almost single-handedly spearheaded a focus on 20th-century and contemporary music at Shepherd, conducting both the school’s contemporary ensemble and a special concert series, Hear & Now. It was at one of the latter concerts that I saw him conduct some truly fearless musicians in a program which he later told me pushed both conductor and musicians alike to the absolute limit: Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1, Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto, and Adams’ Chamber Symphony. After the concert, still in awe, I told Jerry that this once-in-a-lifetime concert could stand up to competition from any contemporary ensemble anywhere.
I was so happy to hear of Jerry’s appointment in Atlanta, and I’m happy that audiences there will get to know him. He was kind enough to answer some questions I sent his way.
Mark Buller: Congratulations on the Atlanta appointment! How did that come about? What was the process like for conductors to audition for something like this?
Jerry Hou: Thank you Mark! It is an absolute thrill to be joining this remarkable organization and to have the opportunity to work with the amazing musicians and staff.
One of the hardest things for young conductors is to get an audition with an orchestra. For instrumentalists, they apply to an advertised job opening, and orchestras will sometimes hear over a hundred auditions for an opening. This isn’t possible for conductors, as our audition requires the entire orchestra to be present, so usually there are four to eight candidates auditioning. Often, the assistant conductor job opening isn’t even advertised. For Atlanta, they did advertise the opening and I submitted my application around this time last year. I have only done a couple of auditions, and each was a little different. In Atlanta there were several components: conducting the orchestra, giving a mock pre-concert talk, an interview with the search committee, and working with the youth orchestra. As the Associate Conductor, I serve many roles within the organization, so versatility and flexibility, along with strong musicianship and leadership skills are crucial for success.
MB: Tell readers a bit about yourself: what’s your background, and what led you to conducting?
JH: I was born in Taiwan and grew up in a small town in Arkansas. I came to music late, starting on trombone in the junior high school band. Orchestra was not offered in our schools, so I didn’t hear an orchestra live until I was nearly in college (and it happened to be the ASO!) Everyone in my family studied to be scientists, so there was an expectation that I would do the same, but music called me. I didn’t know one could make a living as a performer, so I set out to become a high-school band director.
Fast forward a few years, I finished my masters in trombone performance and was working as a freelance performer. I ended up going to Europe on a scholarship to study contemporary music and it changed my life. I spent several years at the Lucerne Festival Academy with Pierre Boulez and lived in Germany where I was part of the Ensemble Modern Academy. These were certainly formative experiences as it expanded my horizons and concept of what music is and could be. Another benefit of living in Germany was the rich orchestra and operatic traditions in the culture. I even spent a couple of years in Berlin, going to nearly every rehearsal and concert of the Berlin Philharmonic and Staatskapelle Berlin. One thing that was impressed upon me during my time there was the idea that music and the arts are not a privilege, but an essential part of life – a human right.
I worked as a trombonist, but when I suffered an injury, causing focal dystonia, it brought an end to my playing days. My interest in conducting came from the time I spent as a trombonist at the back of the orchestra, usually counting rests, and watching and listening to what was going on all around me. There was a lot of music I loved that did not include my instrument, so I was looking for ways to participate in more music. I began attending masterclasses with the famed Finnish conducting pedagogue Jorma Panula, and once I gained enough experience, I returned to school for formal study at the Eastman School of Music.
MB: You’ve got such wide-ranging experiences as a conductor, from ‘amateur’ orchestra (Campanile, at Rice) to top-tier orchestras like St. Louis, to cutting-edge virtuoso groups like Alarm Will Sound and Ensemble Modern. Is it difficult to change gears so radically between styles?
JH: I really enjoy working with the wide variety of music and musicians, as each situation presents different challenges. In the end, the goal is still the same: help the musicians sound the best they can performing the music in front of them.
For less experienced groups, there may be more issues dealing with technique and playing together as an ensemble. With professional orchestras, it’s the challenge of limited time to rehearse. In performing standard repertoire, there is the benefit of the collective performance history with the piece, but with music in which the orchestra has less experience, we always want more time to live with the music so it can flow in our blood and sink into our bones. In working with ensembles dedicated new music, we are often giving the first performance of a piece. There is such a variety of musical styles today, each with their unique technical and musical challenges, stretching the limits of the players. We cannot rely upon the “shortcuts” that collective experience provides, we must create our own performance tradition.
I am endlessly curious about our art form, always listening to new music, meaning music that is new to me, whether it is old music or contemporary music. I think this familiarity with a wide variety of styles allows me to be relatively comfortable with whatever composer’s work is in front of me.
MB: You’ve premiered lots of pieces, including a flute concerto by Yours Truly. What kind of challenges do you face with a brand-new piece?
JH: That is a great work, and it was such a pleasure to perform! I love working with composers and bringing a new piece to life is one of my great musical joys. Premiering a piece is both challenging and exciting. It is a challenge as we cannot depend on experience to navigate questions or problems. It reveals the limitations of music notation, spots of ink on paper (or pixels on an iPad). The excitement is not being bound by the weight of tradition, and the freedom to act as a musical pioneer and blaze the trail of how the piece will be heard by the audience and performed by future musicians. Having the composer present throughout the rehearsal process is always great, so the musicians can really understand the ambiguities of what is written in the score. We are dealing with sound, which can often defy description by music notation or words. Imagine what it would be like to speak with Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, or any of the composers we love, and ask them what they truly wanted and intended!
MB: If you had complete carte blanche, what are some of the “must-conduct” pieces on your bucket list?
JH: Wow, that is a tough question as there are so many pieces on this list! As a conductor who has not performed much of the standard repertoire, at least in concert, there are lots of pieces I would love to conduct. Last year was my first experience conducting a Mahler symphony in performance, his monumental fifth. As a former brass player, I have long loved his music, and would love to do more. I know the ASO is a great Mahler orchestra, and before we shifted to smaller chamber orchestra repertoire, I was looking forward to the planned performances of his second, third, and fifth symphonies.
There is also a lot of the chamber repertoire on my list. I absolutely adore the music of Haydn and loved the recent performance the ASO gave of Haydn’s Symphony 60, “Il distratto.” During my studies, I had a seminar that focused on Haydn’s Paris Symphonies, and after spending so much time studying those works, I would love a chance to bring the sounds to life. Speaking of Haydn (Hungarian by association), I am simply a big fan of all Hungarian music, and would love to conduct more works of Bartok, Ligeti, Kurtag, and Peter Eötvös, an important mentor of mine. He is one of the great living opera composers and I would love the chance to conduct his many operas.
All opera is high on my list, especially after spending a lot of time with ASO Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles, through my other role as Associate Conductor of the Grand Teton Music Festival, I was struck by how his love of the voice, text, and drama influenced how he thought about and shaped music. I recently finished a production of Victor Ullman’s “The Emperor of Atlantis” at the Shepherd School of Music, Rice University, where I teach. It was a phenomenal production featuring the immense talents of the students there. You can still see it on YouTube.
Ultimately I am always looking continue my development as a musician, and conducting music that is new to me, whether old or contemporary, will allow me to keep discovering and growing.
MB: I know by now we’re all tired of the phrase “unprecedented times,” but the arts in particular are facing really difficult challenges. What is the way forward for orchestras in particular? What does the future look like once we’re back to normal?
JH: It certainly is a challenging time for the arts, and lots of musicians are suffering due to organizations going dark temporarily or even worse, folding completely. I am grateful to be part of the ASO, and helping them find innovative ways to keep music alive. It is hard to prescribe a single formula for orchestras as each have unique local government rules and regulations that determine the number of musicians onstage whether they can have audiences. We are currently limited to only 35 musicians onstage and 50 people in the hall, while other orchestras can have more musicians performing and in some cases up to 300 audience members. This of course is in flux as the Covid-19 situation worsens or improves.
During this restrictive time, the ASO and many orchestras around the world are embracing the recording and streaming of their concerts, and I believe this is something that will remain as we return to some semblance of normalcy. The combination of size restrictions and the new prevalence of streaming is interesting in that it allows us to see how homogenous orchestral programming has become. I hope this stimulates creativity, and pushes orchestras to differentiate themselves through their programming, their concert format, and their collaboration with other arts institutions. One thing that orchestras can do to distinguish themselves is to focus on local performers and composers, allowing them to immediately have a more direct impact. Another way for orchestras to contribute to their community is to help fill the void of music education, especially as it is difficult for students to access arts education during the health crisis. Symphony orchestras are here to serve their citizens, and we need to find ways to engage more people in our respective cities. We cannot only expect audiences to come to us, we need to bring live music performance to their communities.
MB: You’ve conducted some other-than-traditional performances, ranging from music in a pitch-black room to various art spaces. Do you think after the pandemic even traditional audiences will be more open to experiences like these?
JH: I certainly hope so. As orchestras reframe what a concert experience can be, I believe we should find more opportunities to perform in new venues. Hearing music in different surroundings and contexts allows the listener to experience familiar pieces in new ways. Also, I think non-traditional venues create different listening expectations for audiences, wonderful for hearing contemporary music. New venues would also allow orchestras the possibility to collaborate with more arts groups and organizations. More importantly, it will allow for greater access to live orchestral music. I am searching to find more places in Atlanta where we can perform, so we can show more people in the community the power of live performance.
MB: Finally: your wife operates a Houston restaurant. Do you have any favorite Atlanta restaurants yet?
JH: It’s been so busy that I haven’t really had time to explore Atlanta’s fantastic dining scene yet. I live close to the hall and have found a great Ramen bar, Indian restaurant, and Pho shop, three of my favorite foods. When I visited Atlanta in the past, I found one of the best burgers I’ve ever had at Bocado, so I’m hoping to get back there soon. They also have great cocktails as well. I’m certainly open to suggestions from the readers, so please do send them my way. ■