Four times a year, the Utah Symphony | Utah Opera (USUO) presents a special program for its subscribers called ‘Meet the Musician’. A new benefit offered through the Symphony, subscribers are given the unique opportunity to be introduced to and talk one on one with Utah Symphony musicians. Previous Meet the Musician programs included Tubist Gary Ofenloch, Contrabassoonist Leon Chodos, Cellist John Eckstein and Pops Conductor Jerry Steichen, and the most recent USUO musician subscribers had the opportunity to meet was Associate Conductor David Cho.
David Cho has been with the Utah Symphony for four and a half years. During his tenure, he has worked with conductors Keith Lockhart, Jerry Steichen, new Music Director Thierry Fischer and a myriad of guest conductors. As Associate Conductor, David has conducted more than 300 performances, including Symphony Orchestra, Pops, Educational, and Subscription Classical Series programs, and this season he will conduct a variety of programming ranging from the Haunted Symphony (Holst, Borodin, Berlioz, Grieg, Wagner, Saint-Seäns) to the Wizard of OZ to Peter and the Wolf.
David introduced himself to the Meet the Musician audience and gave a bit of background about what brought him to Salt Lake City and the Utah Symphony. Raised in a musical household, David’s mother was a lyric soprano and his father was a “classical music fanatic”. Through his mother, he would regularly hear Schumann, Mahler and Brahms, and together with his father he would sit and look through scores, frequently being quizzed by his father about conductors and their works. David was pushed at an early age to play both piano and classical guitar and eventually settled on piano. Learning piano forced him to learn all parts to a score, which would later prove beneficial.
Although he exhibited natural conducting tendencies as a child, it wasn’t David’s ambition to be a conductor. But later in college, as a piano performance major he had a requirement to conduct, and the experience of conducting a Wagner piece led him to the realization that his career might just be at the podium instead of at the keys of the piano. With Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in piano performance and a Master of Music degree in conducting, David spent a year conducting in Florida with Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony and three years as Resident Conductor of the San Antonio Symphony before accepting his current position as Associate Conductor of the Utah Symphony.
As Associate Conductor, David fully supports the conductor and is required to attend all orchestra rehearsals, learning scores and observing ‘imbalances’ and ‘glitches’ that may need to be addressed before a final performance. With four or five weekly rehearsals, David also has to be ready to step in for a conductor at a moment’s notice, which he has only had to do once, in a rehearsal, in his nearly five years with the Symphony.
David is also extensively involved with the Utah Symphony’s educational and community outreach programs. The USUO tries to reach every corner of the state of Utah at least once every three years, with some programs taking the Symphony out of state, such as this year’s winter trip to Wyoming where they will be performing the music of the Nutcracker. The Utah Symphony is actively involved in community outreach in junior high and high schools that have bands or orchestras, and David will rehearse with students before their programs.
This year, David added teaching to his resume and is now an adjunct faculty member at the University of Utah where he teaches 3-4 students per semester. With his weekly schedule of students, outreach programs and symphony rehearsals, it’s a wonder that there’s time for an actual symphony performance during the week!
As the program is “Meet the Musician”, David opened the program up to audience questions.
Audience: What’s your favorite type of music?
David Cho: I’m a very rhythmic conductor. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring comes to mind. It’s really cool when there are 80 musicians locked-in together in that discipline. I also like Haydn a lot. He was very radical and may be considered shocking to some, but that was really cool. Papa Haydn wrote over 100 symphonies!
Audience: Who is your favorite composer.
David Cho: Every day I am amazed by Beethoven. Beethoven came after Haydn and Mozart and he had many hardships in life. His music is very maverick — no grey areas. And recently I’ve been getting into his string quartets.
Audience: Do you like Bach?
David Cho: I love Bach! When I came to the States I was 11. I remember I was encountered with this same question and my answer was no, I did not like Bach. My mother scolded me, asking how it could be that I did not like him. At the time I didn’t appreciate him.
But as a conductor I was forced to learn scores and fugues and all of his music in different clefs and staves. My conducting teachers made me play/sing Bach chorales. They would make me sing one line (soprano) and play the other three simultaneously… alto, tenor, base, and then alter it by singing alto, then playing soprano, bass, tenor, and so on. While studying chorales I learned the art of the fugue. Lots of secret codes! Some of the bars in his masses are supposed to add up to letter in his name. It’s all very fascinating!
David Cho: Very. Seoul has good orchestras, two or three now, I believe. Most children have either taken piano or violin, even though there aren’t traditionally orchestra classes in elementary school. The musicians are very disciplined and receptive, especially when western conductors come as guest artists.
Audience: Do you have a musical ring tone on your cell phone, and if so, what is it?
David Cho: Harp! Though it’s not a special melody and it’s only for my girlfriend. Everyone else gets the xylophone!
Audience: If we were in your car right now, what music would be in your CD player?
David Cho: The Beatles!
Audience: When you look at a score, do you hear all the pieces? Do you hear every note?
David Cho: We pretend to (laughs). Our job is to be able to hear everything. To hear and react to 80 musicians at one time – it’s difficult and it’s a fascinating experience!
Audience: Do you feel a great sense of power in front of 80 musicians?
David Cho: There are different facets to that question. I am younger than most of the musicians on stage, so when I’m standing in front of them, I’m humbled by how much they know that I don’t know. I frequently get suggestions from musicians, but in a respectful way. For example, last year, our Tuba player Gary Ofenloch approached me after a rough reading of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. He asked me if I would consider three beats instead. So I tried it and I liked it.
Standing at the podium, I feel small, yet there is a great joy in making music with the musicians. There is a feeling of ecstasy when everything gels. This is a great sense of joy that equates to power, but it is a power shared with the musicians.
Audience: What do you think about the seating arrangements?
David Cho: You’re referring to the new seating arrangements of the orchestra. Our new Music Director Thierry Fischer split the violins for an antiphonal sound, a call and answer of the violins. It gives a sense of balance. They are further apart but they play better together because they are ‘forced’ to listen to each other better. The brass section is a little lower on the risers this year, which also brings a better balance of sound. Changes aren’t always easy, or always welcomed, but sometimes changes are good.
Audience: Do you have a favorite conductor or mentors?
David Cho: Yes, I have a few. Carlos Kleiber is one. Kleiber performed a very small repertoire but he did it very well. Another mentor is Robert Spano, Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony. He is very dynamic and also a maverick. Larry Rachleff, who is currently Professor of Music and Music Director of the Shepherd School Symphony at Rice, taught me how to embrace the sound and how to study a score efficiently.
Audience: Are musicians born with the ability to ‘get’ the music. Are they born with the natural talent?
David Cho: Yes and no. There are mornings I wake up wondering about things, how and why a piece is the way it is. It’s your profession, it’s a lot of hard work, and it’s a journey.
Audience: You’ve endeared yourself to the Ogden audience. We enjoyed your predecessor, and he was with the symphony about five years. What happens next for you?
David Cho: As this is my fifth year, I am currently looking at different opportunities. There are some positions in California, and I’m also looking at teaching. I’m applying in a variety of places. But first, we have a full season ahead of us here at Abravanel Hall with the Utah Symphony!
Photos of David Cho by Luke Isley
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