TSO HanaChang

Conducting a serious love affair

Listening to conductor Han-Na Chang (34) describing the passionate musicians in Norway, one could almost think that she is talking about a completely different nationality. 

Because in Norway, we probably look at ourselves as more reserved and modest than the people the new chief conductor for Trondheim Symphony Orchestra & Opera (TSO), says she has fallen in love with.

- The musicians of TSO are extremely able and dedicated. And they give of themselves through their music. Everybody are intensely committed to what they are doing, she says with a passion, while her whole face lights up with a big, big smile.

Han-Na Chang is the very first female chief conductor of TSO. And she doesn’t hold back when it comes to describing her feelings for the 85 musicians in the orchestra.

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- You know, me and TSO, that is one serious love affair, she says.

We get to meet her a sunny april afternoon, with her and the orchestra just coming off stage after rehearsing inside Olavshallen, where TSO is located. 

This fall Han-Na Chang is taking over as chief conductor of TSO, following polish conductor Krzysztof Urbanski. She has been guest conductor since 2013 and come fall 2017, she is swinging the main baton.

From keys to strings

Her story, however, starts in the city of Suwon in South Korea. There she was born on december 23 in 1982, and by the age of three, she was already playing the piano.

- But the piano was too big an instrument for me. I didn’t reach the pedals and it was difficult to reach all the keys as well, she remembers.

The cello became her instrument of choice, mainly because her mother – a composer in her own right – liked the unique sound of it. When Han-Na was ten years old, the whole family packed up and moved to New York in the USA. Han-Na had been accepted to the prominent Juilliard School and her parents thought it was best if they all moved so she could take advantage of this great opportunity.

- I am my parents only child, and yes; they moved for my sake. But they have never put their own expectations or any pressure upon me. Their sole concern has been my happiness and me learning the value of hard work to reach my goals.

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The career of young Han-Na Chang continued to develop. From 1993 she studied under Mischa Maisky and the year after, at the age of eleven, she won the fifth Rostropovich International Cello Competition in Paris.  The following year, she also debuted as a recording artist. Her rapidly growing international career took her to play with the world’s greatest orchestras including the Berlin Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, London Symphony, as well as Chicago, Boston, Paris, Milan and Rome.  She continued studying under Mstislav Rostropovich, and dived into philosophy studies at Harvard university. Her career was right on track, the future as international renowned cellist all set. But Han-Na was starting to feel the constraints of the cello.

-The cello is a fantastic instrument, but it’s not that much variety in what to play with it. And I wanted a wider repertoire. This awakened my interest in conducting, she explains.

About Han-Na Chang:

Han-Na Chang was born in Suwon in South Korea, on December 23rd, 1982. She started playing the piano as a three year old, then the piano from the age of six. In 1993 the family moved from Korea to New York in USA, because she was accepted at the Juilliard music school. In 1994 she won to first prizes at Rostropovich international cello competition in Paris. She has studied with some og the best musicians in the world, and she has participated in several recordings between 1995 and 2008. She has also studied philosophy at Harvard university.

During the last ten years she has converted from cello to conducting, and has studied with James DePriest, amongst others. She debuted as a conductor in South Korea in 2007. In march 2016 it was announced that she was to become the first female chief conductor of Trondheim Symphony Orchestra & Opera.

Want to succeed? You need to start early

The interest quickly became something far more serious: In 2007 she debuted as a conductor in her native country of South Korea. Two years later she founded the Absolute Classic Festival, in the very same country, and with a distinct focus on young musicians. Starting in 2012, she conducted  major orchestras in Europe and USA, such as the Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Bamberger Symphoniker, Staatskapelle Dresden, Oslo Philharmonic, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, Seattle, St Louis, Cincinnati symphony orchestras. 

Han-Na is not afraid to say that musicians need to start at an early age and practice a lot, if they want to succeed.

- To play an instrument is to use your muscles and your body, it’s in every way as physical as doing sports. Your motor skills are developing much faster and easier when you are young. The earlier the start, the bigger the chance you are going to learn the craft. To start playing at the age of 15, compared to the age of three of four, is almost impossible to compare. A 15-year old, just starting to play music, will find it difficult to learn the technical aspect of music, she explains.

The quality of Trondheim

In february 2013, she had her first performance as a guest conductor with TSO. It was a great success and the start of what she describes as her love affair with the orchestra in Trondheim.

- You might fall in love at first sight with an orchestra, but then it passes. That is not the case here in Trondheim. With TSO i feel that the orchestra is evolving all the time. TSO performs at a high international level, and the musicians also have a passion that inspires me. This is something we can use to create fantastic experiences for our audience, she says. 

In addition to the orchestra itself, she likes the fact that Trondheim has a long cultural and musical history, where the local school system and university is an integral part of educating even more talents.

A big part of her time goes into planning the musical program and setting up the musical structure for TSO in the future. She is the musical leader as well, and plans for the 2018-19 season are nearly finished. Han-Na says she wants to develop the “sound of TSO”. Then, her own experience as a musician and conductor, will be important. She wants to include, stimulate and challenge the musicians of Trondheim Symphony Orchestra. She talks of herself as an engaged leader who also is willing to learn. She values honesty and would like to be surprised.

- To quote Herbert von Karajan of the legendary Berlin Philharmonic; “a great orchestra surprises its conductor by surpassing his expectations”. I would also like to be surprised, she laughs. Her contagious laughter and broad smile is never far away. 

We leave Olavshallen for a short walk outside. On the south side of Bakke bridge, we stop to let the photographer do his work. The Nidelva river runs slowly below us. It’s spring in the air. “I choose april”, the famous norwegian writer Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson used to say. Indeed. It looks like even the old and characteristic river buildings are having a fabulous day in the rare hot sun. Around us, people are taking pictures om themselves and each other and sharing them on different social media. Despite her quite young age, Han-Na Chang is basically a stranger to these new media channels.

Once again; the contagious laughter while the photographer tries to find the right light for her face. To be fair, she does take a picture with her iPhone of us, but we can rest assured that picture in no way will find its way to Facebook or Instagram and Snapchat, for that matter. She focuses 100 % on helping the photographer and making his work as easy as possible. The photographer is impressed. The job is both quicker and done with more quality than many other of this kind.

Her musical home

Han-Na Chang plans on making Trondheim her musical home, but she will also be traveling quite a bit, both back to New York, to other orchestras in USA and in Europe.

- Most of all, I’m looking forward to my time here in Trondheim. The TSO is an orchestra of extremely high quality with so much potential. And we will be performing together some of the greatest works in symphonic repertoire. I hope it will be an unforgettable musical journey of discovery for us the musicians and for the audience alike!

The next day we visit the orchestra on stage in Olavshallen, to see her in action. She takes a chair with the orchestra getting ready in front of her. At precisely 11.45, the music starts. During the next hour or so, she swings the baton like it is attached to her body. Sweat runs down her face and her eyes sparkle when she guides the musicians in front of her. You can see it in her face. Yes, this is a serious love affair.

About TSO

Trondheim Symphony Orchestra & Opera (TSO) is a driving force in the culture life of Mid-Norway. The orchestra wants to deliver a variety of music of the upmost artistic quality. TSO wants to promote the general interest fir music, both locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. TSO consists of 85 musicians. In addition to the ordinary symphonic concerts, TSO also performs opera, music theatre, other concerts and projects for kids, as well as contemporary music, historic performances and chamber music.

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