by Lou Mancinelli
He wondered if he should give it up. Opportunities proved null.
“I felt a lot of doors were being shut on me personally as a conductor,” said Yoon Jae Lee, the multifaceted musical director of the Old York Road Symphony.
Instead, it was around that time in 2004, when he wondered if maybe he ought quit, that Lee founded the New York City-based Ensemble 212. Its goal is to promote classical music by connecting emerging young professionals.
“If I wasn’t going to get opportunities elsewhere, I’d have to form them on my own,” said Lee from New York, during a recent telephone interview.
For Lee, his work with the Ensemble and outside of it is about finding a new voice in classical music. That means for himself as a composer, conductor, arranger and pianist, and the way he interprets music. As an arranger, flirting with the original score in new ways that stay true to the old way is the goal; as if in subtle homage.
“I’m trying to find my own voice as a Korean American,” said Lee.
In addition to his work with Old York Road, Lee, 34, currently serves as conductor of the City College of New York University Symphony Orchestra, where he teaches, and Wyoming Seminary Civic Orchestra, which is a school in Pennsylvania. He is past conductor of the Youth Symphony for United Nations, and has guest conducted with the New England Conservatory.
The New York Times said, “The lightness of Mahler’s original score was everywhere in evidence, with solos leaping out in unusually bold detail,” about a 2009 performance of Lee’s arrangement of a Gustav Mahler piece performed by a chamber group. “The result was more illuminating than convincing.”
What he’s doing is new. Maybe sometimes we need things to be illuminated more than we need them to be convincing, like our spirits.
Lee was raised in the theater district in midtown Manhattan. He developed an affinity for classical music as a child while his parents listened to it at home. He earned his bachelor’s degree in 2000 from Mannes College of Music in New York, where he focused on a double major in orchestral conducting and piano.
It isn’t a stretch to say classical music is not a household item like ketchup is a household item. It’s a comment often heard when people talk about the current state of classical music; those trying to keep orchestras’ finances afloat say the music needs more exposure.
After Mannes, Lee spent two years doing independent studies at University Mozarteum Salzburg, located in Mozart’s home town in Austria. Classical music can easily enough be pinpointed to that area of Europe, in term of its modern development, according to Lee.
Maybe classical music isn’t more popular because of the misperception that it is a form created a few hundred years ago in one place. That it’s outdated. Regardless of when it was created, there is something about a Bach solo cello piece that seems to contain the secrets of the universe. And it is very much alive. Its mystery is that it brings the dead to life in sound.
Like many of today’s young budding classical musicians, Lee envisions a new wave of thought or style in classical music that involves composers and musical traditions from around the world.
At a recent performance at The Stone, an avant-garde performance space in New York City, Ensemble 212 performed a piece by Arab American composer Mohammed Fairouz. The BBC called the 26-year-old the most frequently performed composer of his generation, in a piece it published last summer.
At a more recent performance at The Stone, Ensemble 212 performed an arrangement by Lee of a traditional Korean piece. In the 18th century aristocratic chamber musicians would have performed it with traditional stringed and woodwind instruments.
“I think the new composer is going to bring some of his own heritage into classical music,” said Lee, about the future of classical music, and as much about its current state.
Our technologies these days make us as connected as if we lived in one another’s homes. But even without wireless devices, New York City has been the place where the world’s cultures came to dance and find new partners, so to speak. From clothes to subway maps, it’s multicultural, so it’s only natural it would extend to classical music.
It’s illuminating to think how a cellist raised at home on the twang and meditative dirge of traditional Persian music might interpret the lonely haunt of a cello playing Bach’s “1st Symphony in C minor.”
Lee, who also teaches at various locations, has used his run at Old York Road, which started in 2008, as an opportunity to feature works created by local composers like Peter Hilliard. He is dedicated to promoting classical music and working towards creating more exposure for the form.
“There’s something in me right now that’s intellectually growing,” said Lee. “It’s really hard to put it into words. That’s why I prefer to perform the music and let the music speak.”
For more information about Yoon, visit www.yoonjaelee.info. For more information about upcoming performances by the Old York Road Symphony, currently in its 80th year, call 215-782-1718 or visit www.oldyorkroadsymphony.org