2023 was a breakout year for Canadian conductor and pianist Naomi Woo—not least for her nationally celebrated appointment as Music Director of the National Youth Orchestra of Canada. This meteoritic momentum continues in 2024 with a breakneck pace of engagements with orchestras from the LA Philharmonic, to the Vancouver Symphony—and, of course, your Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Hot off the heels of her most recent appearance with the TSO — assisting Jane Glover through a soaring run of Handel’s Messiah — Woo returns on February 13 to conduct Year of the Dragon: A Lunar New Year Celebration. Glistening with beloved classics and festive favourites — including the Butterfly Lovers Concerto and Song of the Pipa — this special program features the TSO and special guests as we honour the Year of the Dragon and celebrate the Lunar New Year.
Ahead of this much-awaited evening of celebration and renewal, Woo takes a brief moment from a packed schedule to answer some of our burning questions.
Noteworthy: This is your conducting début with the TSO. What are you looking forward to the most in working with this orchestra?
Naomi Woo: I’ve been so lucky to have gotten to know many of the current musicians in the TSO over the years—whether in summer chamber music programs in university, through mentorship with Tapestry’s Women in Musical Leadership Program, or in my new role as Music Director of the National Youth Orchestra, where many TSO musicians work as mentors. It’s always so exciting to conduct when it also feels like making music with old friends!
NW: This program combines both staples of the Western and Chinese orchestral music canon (e.g. Ballad of the Pipa, Wine Ecstasy, Butterfly Lovers Concerto). What about these pieces makes them so iconic and so integral to the canon/culture?
Naomi: What’s thrilling about this program is the variety, with music from such a wide range of eras, influences, countries… I love Huang Ruo’s arrangements of Chinese folk songs: they incorporate his distinctive 21st century sound and orchestration but the folk songs still remain recognizable.
Our version of The Ballad of the Pipa is a relatively new arrangement for narrator and orchestra, but based on the Tang Dynasty poem "Pipa xing" (琵琶行)by Bai Juyi. It will really come to life in Dashan’s narration of the poem. What I find quite striking about the arrangement is that the orchestration (the musicians of the TSO) does not include a pipa, and yet the poem beautifully describes the pipa’s sound:
Thick strings clatter like splattering rain,
Fine strings murmur like whispered words,
Clattering and murmuring, meshing interweaving sounds,
Like pearls, big and small, falling on a platter of jade.
The audience will — I think — be able to imagine these sounds via Dashan’s expressive narration and the sounds of the orchestra. For me, this is a real testament to an orchestra’s capacity to create an imaginative world that is far greater than the sum of its parts.
NW: What about collaborating with the guest soloists – Timothy Chooi, Eric Guo, and Xiaoxia Zhao – excites you the most?
Naomi: Xinruo Chen’s Wine Ecstasy (2017) was written for the soloist Zhao Xiaoxia. She and I have previously performed the work together with The Orchestra Now at Bard, and so I’m really looking forward to revisiting the work with her. It’s always a treat to revisit the music with the same collaborators, and particularly so because Xiaoxia is so closely connected to this particular piece!
Timothy Chooi and I have known each other since we were very young, but have never worked together, so I’m delighted to have the chance to reconnect with such iconic music: Butterfly Lover’s Concerto.
And given Eric Guo’s recent exciting win in the 2nd Chopin Competition on Period Instruments, it will be such a special treat to perform the very piece that he played at the competition, Chopin’s E Minor Piano Concerto!
It’s truly a thrilling group of soloists! And, of course, Dashan is an icon—as well as a charismatic host and extremely compelling performer. His performance of The Ballad of the Pipa is sure to be absolutely riveting.
NW: How do you celebrate the Lunar New Year? Does your family have any specific traditions?
Naomi: I always loved wearing brand new clothing for an auspicious start to the Lunar New Year.
NW: How has the incorporation of orchestral music within Toronto's Chinese diaspora contributed to preserving cultural identity, cultural expression, and fostering a sense of community?
Naomi: I truly believe that the role of any arts organisation — orchestras included — is to bring people together. To my mind, this concert has the potential to appeal to a really wide range of people: seasoned music lovers, members of the Chinese diaspora, Lunar New Year celebrants from around the world, and simply people who are curious about trying new things! Bringing people together in this way to imagine and celebrate feels like exactly what I love most about live music-making.