Orchestrating The Sound Of QPO

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Han-Na Chang was a child prodigy who began studying the piano at the age of three and moved on to the cello three years afterwards. Today she is focused on conducting, having taken on the role of Music Director of the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra. Chang’s greatest desire for the future is to inspire the orchestra to rise to new heights.

It is rare for someone who is young and female to be the conductor of a major orchestra, such as the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra (QPO). What challenges and opportunities do you think arise from this situation?

Well, I conducted the QPO in two programs in June 2012 and we had a great time working and performing together. So, naturally, I was happy to be invited to be their new Music Director a few months later. To me, one’s age, or background, or whether the conductor is male (almost all the time) or female (very rarely) are all quite irrelevant to being a good conductor. What is truly important is whether the conductor fulfills the role for the orchestra. Being a musician is about love for music, talent, dedication, passion, and hard work – all things spiritual and not so much about physical qualities such as age. So the orchestra and the conductor must be most passionate about, and invested in, giving the best possible performance of great music.

What inspired you to decide to pursue a career in music?

I started my professional career as a cellist at the age of 11. At the time, I wanted to play for famous Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich and the only opportunity to do that was to enter his cello competition in Paris in 1994 (the Fifth Rostropovich International Cello Competition). I won first prize and the contemporary music prize and this launched my career. Since 2007, I have been devoting more and more time to conducting, and nowadays I conduct all the time.

What drives me as a musician is the incredible power of classical music – its power to move audiences and to unite people of all ages and backgrounds, both musicians and audiences alike. It is this positive joy of music that motivates me every day to become a better musician and to continue sharing.

You organize the ‘Absolute Classic Festival’, where you audition young, talented musicians to be part of the orchestra. What makes you put the effort in to this each year?

Well, the founding principle was twofold: first to encourage, motivate, and support talented young musicians who are at the stage of having finished their graduate studies, but have yet to embark on a career as a professional musician. The second reason was to share the joy of music with a wider audience; to share how much fun classical music is with the young audiences, as well as how important it is to have music in one’s life with the older audiences. To me, classical music is, and must be, an absolutely crucial part of the world we live in today.

Why is it important? Today, when the world is so divided and different cultures are clashing with each other at an ever-increasing speed thanks to technology, music serves the unique role of uniting people. Play Beethoven and regardless of one’s age or nationality, the audience will be profoundly moved. It is this unique quality to speak directly to the human heart that makes classical music so important. I wanted to let the audience know that classical music is here to be enjoyed.

What do you hope to bring to the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra?

I am truly impressed by the talent and the potential of the QPO. When you think of how this orchestra was formed – thousands of musicians auditioned and the best 107 were hand-picked – one can only imagine how far we can go. I hope that I can challenge and inspire the orchestra to rise to new heights, and more importantly, I look forward to enjoying this journey with the orchestra, and with our audiences. The process of growth for the orchestra is to give the best possible concert one at a time, so I look forward to doing this with the QPO.

Fundamentally, the orchestra is an instrument for the composer and each composer demands a different sound and expression. At the same time, great orchestras have their own sound. So the goal is to cultivate the ‘Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra Sound’ while being honest and dedicated to the composer’s voice. To me, the most beautiful sound is the most expressive sound, so a big part of our work together will be to continue to discover a wide range of expressive sonic possibilities.

Why is it important that Qatar has a world-class orchestra?

For all the reasons above! Every society needs an orchestra, a living organization that creates something new at every performance. And if you have one, it might as well be a world-class orchestra, capable of bringing the great music to life and thereby providing local and visiting audiences with a top standard of music making. Sometimes people think that in arts, there is only taste. But I am always telling people, first comes standard, and then taste. One can only debate taste after a certain standard has been achieved.

Do you feel a duty to pass the musical baton from generation to generation in the years to come, having studied privately with Maestro Rostropovich? What did you gain most from your time with the Maestro?

I have been very fortunate to have wonderful teachers: Slava Rostropovich, Mischa Maisky, and Giuseppe Sinopoli. What is most striking about these really great musicians is their genuine passion for music – they do not use music for another end or gain. In fact, great music making is all about forgetting yourself. So I feel that it is my duty also to share this passion with the generations to come.