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‘Women can be great conductors,’ without qualifiers

Cellist-turned-conductor Chang Han-na visits Korea with Trondheim Symphony Orchestra

Cellist-turned-conductor Chang Han-na will embark on a South Korean tour with the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra from Wednesday to Sunday.

Chang, 37, is the artistic leader and chief conductor of the Norway-based orchestra. The orchestra’s first-ever Korean tour will kick off at the Seoul Arts Center on Friday, followed by concerts in Busan (Thursday), Daegu (Saturday) and Iksan (Sunday).

The program includes Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16, and Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 “Pathetique.” 

Conductor Chang Han-na speaks at a press conference held Monday at The Plaza in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul. (Credia)
Conductor Chang Han-na speaks at a press conference held Monday at The Plaza in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul. (Credia)

“Every member of the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra takes to the stage with burning passion. I am happy to connect the passionate orchestra to the audience and classical music enthusiasts in Korea,” Chang said at a press event held in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul, Monday.

The artist, who has a 25-year career behind her, is widely recognized in Korea as a prodigy-turned-virtuoso. In 1994, at the age of 11, she won first prize at the fifth Rostropovich International Cello Competition.

After years of performing internationally as a solo cellist, Chang developed an interest in conducting. She made her debut as a conductor in 2007 in Korea.

“The cello’s repertoire is very limited. I was worried about developing a narrow perspective (on music), like a microscope. I wanted a telescope,” she said.

“I just stared at the scores of great symphonies for hours. My eyes and ears opened up. After making my debut as a conductor, I knew that this was what I wanted,” the artist said, further commenting that she intends to focus on her conductor role for now and has no definite plans to return to the stage as a cellist.

In 2013, Chang first took the baton as a guest conductor for the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra. Four years later, she was appointed artistic director and chief conductor of the orchestra, and since 2017 she has spent eight weeks a year in the northern city. She is signed until 2023. Based in New York, she says she finds peace when staying in the small Norwegian city.

“Usually, things become clear 10 seconds after starting the first rehearsal. The conductor knows, and the orchestra knows (what to expect). The reason that I love Trondheim is that when I suggest an idea to the orchestra, the members are not afraid of making unconventional sounds. They are very open,” she said.

“Leading an orchestra, I share the passion and energy of nearly 100 orchestra members,” she said. “Now, I have found another home (in Norway). I become part of the tradition, making artistic interaction with the members, the city and the audience.”

Chang is a unique presence in the music scene, as an Asian female conductor.

“In this world, even outside of the music industry, there are so many factors of discrimination against women, race, age and more,” she said. “There isn’t any woman conductor in the world’s top 10 orchestras. It is rare for women to even become guest conductors for the orchestras.

“I hope women can be great conductors without being labeled as great woman conductors, to be free from the title of woman,” she said.

“There are many definitions to being a great conductor. For me, I need to conduct in a way that responds to the orchestra’s needs. What I want from the orchestra may not change, but what the orchestra needs from me changes every single day,” she said.

Pianist Lim Dong-hyek joins the orchestra for the Grieg Piano Concerto piece, the highlight of the program, according to Chang. It is their first time onstage together.

He shared third prize with his brother Lim Dong-min at the 2005 International Chopin Piano Competition, with no second prize being awarded. He also shared fourth prize with Sergei Sobolev in the 2007 International Tchaikovsky Competition, where no first prize was awarded.

By Im Eun-byel (