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Han-Na Chang | Meet the Maestro

12:29, 1st August 2014

Child prodigy cellist Han-Na Chang reinvented herself as a conductor and is now music director of the Qatar Philharmonic

Han-Na Chang shot to fame in 1994 when, as a child prodigy cellist aged 11, she won the Rostropovich International Cello Competition. She was soon established as a rising star, her natural, intelligent and communicative musicianship inspiring figures such as Rostropovich himself and Giuseppe Sinopoli to adopt her as a protegée.

Since then, Chang, now 31, has reinvented herself as a conductor. Last September she became music director of the Qatar Philharmonic; she is also principal guest conductor of the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra in Norway and has made recent debuts with the WDR Symphony Orchestra and the Leipzig Gewandhaus, among others.

‘I’d been fortunate to work with some of the great conductors and orchestras,’ she says. ‘But the cello repertoire is very small. It hit me around the time I went to university that it’s similar to looking down a microscope – you start to analyse every note – and I was becoming curious about things I didn’t have access to directly in music-making, especially the great symphonies and operas.’

A Beethoven epiphany proved the turning point. ‘I’d known the Beethoven symphonies for a long time, but one day I realised what a miracle they are. Every one of the symphonies suddenly woke me up, as if I was hearing them for the first time. That motivated me to start studying the scores.’

Working with Sinopoli, she adds, she had often played a concerto, then stayed to hear him conduct Mahler or Bruckner in the second half: ‘I was mesmerised by these gigantic utterances of human genius. The more I looked into them, the more I wished I could perform them myself.’ Following the dream, she finally decided to look for a conducting teacher.

After several years of mentoring from James DePreist, then director of conducting and orchestral studies at the Juilliard School, Chang was invited to make some documentaries about the Beethoven symphonies for a television channel in her native South Korea, with plenty of footage of her conducting. She ran the resulting DVDs past trusted friends in the music industry asking for their opinions. It was their encouragement and contacts that launched her in earnest on to her new path, notably Peter Alward of EMI Classics who had signed her up as a cellist when she was 12 – even though his initial reaction, she says, was ‘Oh no! Not another instrumentalist taking to conducting!’

She was invited to guest-conduct the Qatar Philharmonic in June 2012. The orchestra had been formed three years earlier and she was much taken with its potential. The majority of the musicians are European, and the dozen or so Arabic musicians from Syria and Egypt had mostly trained in Europe as well: ‘The sheer diversity of backgrounds is incredible – we have around 30 different nationalities,’ she says.

After her first season as music director, she is filled with excitement about the enthusiasm with which the country’s young people embrace an art form still new to them. ‘In March the Vienna Boys’ Choir came to sing with us along with a local children’s choir run by Al Jazeera TV, a mix of girls and boys. After the concert one of the girls came up to me and said: “You’re my role model – I want to be a conductor when I grow up!” I was so happy and thrilled.’

The immediate excitement is the orchestra’s imminent visit to the Proms: on 7 September Chang conducts a programme of music by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and the Iranian-born composer Behzad Ranjbaran ‘We’re honoured to be making our Proms debut,’ Chang declares. ‘Some of the players have been saying it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. They really understand what a privilege it is to be on that stage.’

She remarks that ‘the woman conductor question’ has scarcely been mentioned in Qatar. Perhaps as the orchestral field is so new there, ingrained prejudices prevalent among western orchestras have not had time to take hold. ‘Still, I try not to be a woman conductor, but a good conductor, with honesty and sincerity in my interpretations that I can share with the musicians.

‘People often think of a conductor as dominant and controlling, but I don’t see it that way,’ she adds. ‘My view is that you are there to help the musicians to give the best possible performance in the easiest possible way. The conductor is there to serve the musicians.’

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