x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra's new, unifying force

Han-Na Chang, who is joining the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra as musical director, has enjoyed a glittering career as performer and conductor - and she's only 29.

Han-Na Chang has been scaling back solo performances lately to focus on conducting. Courtesy Qatar Philharmonic
Han-Na Chang has been scaling back solo performances lately to focus on conducting. Courtesy Qatar Philharmonic

You could never accuse the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra of lacking vision. Founded just five years ago, the ensemble has now chosen a musical director who really stands out from the classical music crowd: she's a woman, she's Korean and she's only 29 years old. The conductor and cellist Han-Na Chang, named as the orchestra's new musical director yesterday, already has a reputation as a name to watch, and promises interesting times ahead for the Qatar Phil. Indeed, the cheerful, personable Chang seems to have already fallen in love with the ensemble.

"We share a lot of passion," she says. "We are a very energetic bunch of people. I first played with the Qatar Philharmonic in June, and I found them to be very versatile, very quick to adapt. It's an incredibly diverse orchestra - it has 30 different nationalities - but everyone is of the same, very high calibre."

Chang suggests that her new orchestra's still-peripheral position in the music world could be to its creative advantage.

"One thing that makes the orchestra so special, so interesting, is that they're not only excellent interpreters of the great names of the western classical tradition but they play a lot of contemporary music and works from Arabic composers," she says. "They're really part of the very strong and diverse traditions of the Arab world."

Taking on a still-forming ensemble so young might seem daunting, but Chang has already developed a habit of passing great career milestones incredibly young. Following an early childhood shared between South Korea and New York's Juilliard School of Music, she made music buffs' jaws drop when she won the prestigious Rostropovich cello prize at the age of 11.

She's since performed as a soloist with some of the world's top orchestras, developed a reputation for conducting and set up her own music festival, Korea's Absolute Classic Festival. She even managed to bag a philosophy degree from Harvard along the way. But far from being a distant, academic figure, she talks with warm, ringing conviction about classical music's possible role for everyone.

"Orchestras have such a big role to play. How many [chances] do people have, really, where they can get recharged, be moved? We can learn so much from music, experience so much through it, and it doesn't even take very long, say half an hour for Beethoven, 90 minutes for Bruckner or Mahler. We can share so much joy in music. It's one of those rare pleasures that truly lets your mind escape. What makes it even more special is that it's being created right there, just for you. I genuinely believe people are creative beings and that listening to music helps them to be more so, to delve deeper inside themselves."

Taking on her new role in Doha will mean scaling down work as a soloist, but since she made conducting her priority several years ago, Chang insists that this causes her little regret.

"It's a big honour and a big happiness. The life of the soloist is also very lonely, as you're responsible just for yourself. As a conductor, however, you're responsible for the collective sound. You don't even look at the audience, you just face the orchestra. As a conductor, I give and give and give, but the orchestra responds so quickly, so persuasively. There is a real give and take of energy and passion."

Happily, Gulf music lovers can look forward to some of that energy and passion coming their way soon.