Guest conductor creating a ‘Holiday Feast’ for GSO

Dec 4, 2015

by Jim Krencik, The Daily News

BATAVIA — The holidays are a time to gather around a table with beloved people, dishes and songs.

That’s the spirit that Yunn-Shan Ma wanted to bring to her role as guest conductor for the Genesee Symphony Orchestra’s “Holiday Feast”.

Ma, a doctoral candidate at the Eastman School of Music and an instructor at the Hobart and William Smith Colleges, didn’t want to approach the show as a Christmas concert, because of the universal feeling of the season that crosses faiths and backgrounds.

“Since most of us spend time with family and friends on holidays, I wanted to come up with a program that is not only filled with holiday spirits, but also providing various genres, styles of music to be true feast,” Ma said.

Thinking about a program “that speaks for everybody,” she turned to the tales, operas, images and movies that fit the season’s spirit.

They range from 19th century Russian operas — Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Snowmaiden Suite” and Glinka’s “Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla” — American Leonard Bernstein’s “Overture to Candide” and Austrian Joseph Haydn’s “Cello Concerto No.1 in C Major”.

The feast will be served at 4 p.m. Sunday at St. Mary’s Church, 18 Ellicott St.

A native of Taiwan, Ma received early musical training in piano and violin as a child. At 11, her family moved to Vienna, where she won an audition to study at a prestigious pre-college program.

She received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Taiwan before moving to the U.S. as a doctoral student at the Eastman School of Music, where she leads and participates in a multitude of collegiate ensembles. Ma has guest conducted the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and Syracuse Vocal Ensemble and the Taiwan Film Music Production in New York City; and directs the Taiwanese Choral Society of Rochester.

Coming from a small island nation, Ma said she’s been lucky to have so many opportunities around the world. Those experiences have helped her handle a schedule that splits her between Batavia, Rochester and Geneva.

“I try to gain as many experiences as I can,” said Ma, who doesn’t have the time to desire to consider herself busy. “I think it’s passion ... because we choose what we want to do.”

In the GSO, Ma sees a group that has chosen to commit to a shared passion.

With her collegiate ensembles, Ma said she tries to describe the personal feeling she wants, and it can be harder to hit unfamiliar themes. Her discussions and conversations with the orchestra’s musicians are about more than just playing the notes. They’re making music.

“Because of having people from everywhere in community, from different jobs and musical (backgrounds), you hear their souls and their hearts,” Ma said. “That’s what’s amazing working with GSO.”

As one of the four guest conductors selected for this season’s concerts, Ma was able to do more than build the music. She was able to bring in performers like Lars Kirvan, an RPO cellist who joined the GSO’s practice Monday. Kirvan’s musical style and ability to play a challenging instrument with seemingly effortless ability was well-received.

Jeremy Hill, an active soloist and chamber musician with the RPO, and the Syracuse Symphony, will he at Ma’s side as the GSO’s guest concertmaster. Hill, a string player, is tasked with putting the orchestra’s pitch to perfection before the show.

The GSO’s version of the “Polar Express Concert Suite” will present six passages from the 2004 film, with Oakfield-Alabama’s fifth- and sixth-grade chorus singing a newly-transcribed vocal part. Ma is meeting those students Thursday.

“To be lucky enough to do this concert, to perform with the GSO, with Lars, the chorus ... that’s already for me, the greatest experience.”

Each of this season’s guest conductors are finalists to become the orchestra’s permanent conductor.

It’s an unique position, being the only person not making sound but carrying all of the music within you. Ma said she sees it as her duty to communicate with the performers, “who is doing what, how do we want to present a certain passage, whom to listen for.”

Ma said her goal is always to make the most of her opportunities. It’s been a worthwhile experience, regardless of where it goes after Sunday.

“The most precious moment for me is when I see sparkles in the musicians’ eyes after rehearsals,” she said after Monday’s practice. “I know that we are going to have a great time, a great performance, because we feel good and we are ready to share.”