Festival Conductor a World Ambassador for Classical Music

It’s a wonder that Scott Yoo can find the time to conduct at the Colorado College Summer Music Festival. The Tokyo-born violinist, who grew up in Connecticut, is the chief conductor and artistic director for the Mexico City Philharmonic, the music director for Festival Mozaic in California, and host and executive producer for “Now Hear This,” part of the “Great Performances” series on PBS, among many other commitments.

But he wouldn’t have it any other way. The 50-year-old has wielded the baton at SMF for 20 years and hopes for many more. Festival Music Director Susan Grace and her husband, Michael, a CC professor of music, are like family members to Yoo and his wife, Alice Dade, a flutist on the SMF faculty.

“Every year we come back, it feels like a family reunion. There are so many faculty members at the festival that I’ve become close friends with, and we keep in touch all year round,” Yoo says from his home in Columbia, Missouri. “To miss out on the festival would really be sort of personally devastating. I just love returning every June. It’s been really a privilege.”

While at the SMF, Yoo’s day starts about 7 a.m., when he and Michael Kroth, the festival’s longtime bassoonist, meet to talk about what happened the day before and what’s in store for that day. That’s often followed by a chamber music rehearsal, but Yoo is always involved with the orchestra rehearsals at the Edith Kinney Gaylord Cornerstone Arts Center.

Every two or three days, he leads an evening concert in Packard Hall, which he describes as feeling like rock concerts.

“I remember the first time I came to the festival, I couldn’t believe the atmosphere in the room. I thought it was some sort of a staged thing. But really, there is such enthusiasm for the music that people just start cheering and hollering, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” he says.

He missed that exuberant atmosphere last summer, when the festival had to go virtual. The pandemic has had a huge impact on his work, Yoo says. This year, everyone involved with SMF was tested “to the max” to ensure they were healthy.

While in Colorado Springs, Yoo also taped episodes for “Now Hear This.” The series was sparked when producer-writer-director Harry Lynch approached Yoo after a 2016 Brahms concert.

The Brahms compositions for violin, cello, and piano were written during different periods of the German composer’s life, so Yoo researched Brahms to give the audience context about the work. Lynch was impressed with Yoo’s presentation and suggested collaborating on a television show.

“That was obviously a very life-changing encounter for me,” Yoo says.

They shot the pilot episode in 2017, got the green light in 2018, and the first season was broadcast in 2019. The second season aired in 2020; he thinks the third season will air sometime in 2022.

“We want to put classical music on everyone’s playlist on their iPhone or their Android. We know that people will listen to lots of different kinds of music, but we want classical to be a part of that. And I think we’re doing some good work in that area,” Yoo says.

He loves crisscrossing the globe to explore composers’ lives and work. They featured Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Bach, and Handel in the first season; and Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert in the second.

Next, they’ll feature Amy Beach (1867-1944) and Florence Price (1887-1953), two little-known American composers, and Aaron Copland (1900-1990), “the dean of American composers.” The next season also will focus on the immigrant experience through the stories of Reena Esmail, an Indian-American composer; Andy Akiho, a Japanese-American composer; and Sergio Assad, a Brazilian-American composer.

Yoo immerses himself in local culture by performing with other brilliant musicians in historic sites, sampling local food and drink — even wearing period clothing.

“In many of the episodes, my role is actually to be the everyman, to kind of be the conduit through which the public experiences music,” he says.

He sees “Now Hear This” as a way to reach younger audiences and preserve chamber music.

“There are plenty of art forms in human history that have evaporated over generations. And we don't know about them,” he says. “But classical music is such an incredible art form and such a universal art form, we can’t let it die.”

Once travel loosens in Europe, Yoo and Lynch hope to return for new episodes. Yoo, an “experience collector,” is grateful to experience things others can’t, and to meet musicians and composers who usually move in different circles.

The “Now Hear This” crew came to Colorado Springs to tape performances at Garden of the Gods, the Will Rogers Shrine, and CC locations including Shove Memorial Chapel, Cornerstone Arts Center, and Packard Hall. SMF faculty and students performed for the Copland episode.

“The fellows and especially the faculty were such good sports about it. And they did it really beautifully. So I was really proud of everybody,” Yoo says.

Being a conductor, he says, means allowing the musicians to be the best versions of themselves. After a lifetime in music, he knows how musicians think and feel, and what they need and want.

Yoo received his first violin at age 3, and studied with Roman Totenberg, Albert Markov, Paul Kantor, and Dorothy DeLay. He earned a bachelor’s degree at Harvard University, and studied conducting with Michael Gilbert and Michael Tilson-Thomas.

He remembers the thrill of being a high school junior, conducting the school orchestra for a few minutes. He remembers conducting the St. Luke’s chamber orchestra in New York City and how that felt.

“It was amazing to me, the sensation of moving your body and having that affect on the sound. And to me, that’s something that is really sort of magic.”

Yoo still feels that magic, whether he’s leading an orchestra or making a violin sing the way its maker intended and the composer dreamed.

“I can’t imagine a life out of music at this point.”


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