Just before opening Boise Philharmonic's new season as the symphony's first soloist of the year, pianist Alpin Hong told BW his upcoming shows were "gonna rip." Dressed comfortably in a two-piece track suit with his shoulder-length hair held back by a pair of sunglasses, the Juilliard-trained musician is surprisingly casual off stage. He talks about classical music in slangy adjectives a teenager might understand better than most of the symphony's season ticket holders, and says the Boise Philharmonic is about to put on a "helluva season." When describing his first rehearsal with Dr. Leslie Dunner, the weekend's guest conductor, Hong says, "You should have seen it. At the last note of the piece, we held the tension and we looked at each other and we were like ... 'yeah,'" emphasizing "yeah" with a tone of voice and hand gestures more expected from a rockstar.
On stage, Hong plays the part of a concert pianist more flamboyantly than most, while performing flawlessly. Watching Hong, it's difficult to call what he does just playing the piano. During last Saturday's concert, he executed Ravel's Concerto in G Major theatrically, appearing at times to be battling the instrument, involuntarily drawn to it with his fingers pounding and his face very near the keys. At the end of the first movement, he hammered several measures intensely before leaping away from the keys and the pedals—his entire body recoiling—like he'd just set the whole instrument on fire. By the third movement, he was postured and soft, pouncing on the ivories as though his fingers were merely dancing in the air above the keys. When coaxed back on stage by the applause from an audience of nearly 2,000, Hong delivered an encore performance for which he feigned an injured right arm and deftly tackled both the bass and treble clefts—a feat not easily accomplished on even the most elementary of piano pieces—with only his left hand. Save for the last note, that is.
"Part of the challenge of what our job is," explains Hong, "is that we're in a market that is tagged as dying. It's 200 or 300 years old, and [we have to] make it alive and vibrant."
Hong's stage presence and showmanship are the most obvious examples of how he invigorates classical music. However, the pianist (who not only admonishes his alma mater for its refusal to work with Metallica but criticizes conservatory and symphony boards for allowing orchestral music to stagnate with its elitist attitudes), says it's important to bring new life to the art form with the interest of a younger audience.
Born in 1976, Hong serves as a necessary translator between old classical music and members of his own generation, as well as those even younger (he recently ended performances for high school students with the theme song to popular video game "Super Mario Brothers").
Musicians like Hong are indications of how Boise Philharmonic is about to change. After 20 years under the direction of conductor James Ogle, Boise Philharmonic is going into the homestretch of the two-year process in which Ogle's replacement will be chosen. From a field of more than 300 worldwide, Boise Philharmonic's marketing director Tina Kierce says it's down to 11 candidates.
The ideal candidate, surmises Hong, is "one-third politician, one-third artist and one-third general." Finding that person is a lengthy undertaking.
"The initial process is looking at repertoire and experience, and more than half were cut at that point," explains Kierce. "Then there are interviews, the references, and then it comes down to who is still available." Finally, there are the auditions, which are no small hurdle. This season, six of the music director candidates will audition, which requires that they lead Boise Philharmonic in a repertoire of their choosing for the symphony's patrons. Following the performance, not only do the musicians weigh in with their opinions on the candidate, but audience members, too, are asked to evaluate the candidate's competence by written survey.
This season's search for a new music director means two things for Boise symphony goers. First, because the candidates are leading Boise Philharmonic as part of what essentially boils down to a job interview, they are here to impress, and each of them is pulling out their very best material. Last weekend's guest conductor, Dr. Leslie Dunner, is currently the music director for the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago, a position that no doubt influenced his choice to lead Boise Philharmonic in a selection of ballet excerpts from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet.
Second, a new music director means change is on the wind in the Philharmonic's future seasons. According to Kierce, the music director is absolutely instrumental in choosing each season's repertoire, so candidates will use their auditions to showcase not only their talents, but their possible intentions for season repertoires. For example, January's concert program includes Red Cape Tango, a piece from contemporary composer Michael Daugherty that was chosen by guest conductor Robert Franz, who is known for his affinity for new music.
In addition, says Kierce, the incoming music director determines such things as the season's length and supplemental educational and community programs that augment monthly performances. "All kinds of things can happen," says Kierce. "And, of course, a new director becomes a community icon."
The idea that Boise Philharmonic's evolution during the course of Ogle's 20 years has become a full-blown revolution this season is also reflected in the Philharmonic's effort to increase attendance in younger age brackets. Ideally, says Kierce, she'd like to see more representation from the 20- and 30-something demographic, who perceive the symphony as a formal, stuffy and cost-prohibitive event. To help make performances more affordable, Boise Philharmonic is offering mini-season tickets, a package of four concerts at a savings of $12 a seat. As for making Hong's excitement for classical music more infectious among his peers, Hong does his part by lauding Boise Philharmonic's upcoming season. He expects every one of the Philharmonic's concerts this season to have an added element of excitement, with a conductor who is fighting for a job and a young, energetic soloist—many of whom this season were once his schoolmates—taking the energy up a notch.
"It's really a fresh start," says Hong. "With Maestro Ogle leaving, they're on a whole different path. It's brand spanking new, and it's not going to be the symphony they knew before."