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creative:impact - Maestro Earl Lee steps onto the A2SO podium

Earl Lee conducts the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra.
Kelvin J Baker Videography & Photography
Earl Lee conducts the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra.

Creative industries in Washtenaw County add hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy. In the weeks and months to come, host Deb Polich, the President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, explores the myriad of contributors that make up the creative sector in Washtenaw County.

Deb Polich, President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, at the WEMU studio.
David Fair
89.1 WEMU
Deb Polich, President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, at the WEMU studio.


Earl Lee
Kelvin J Baker Videography & Photography
Earl Lee

Winner of the 2022 Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award, Earl Lee is a renowned Korean-Canadian conductor who has captivated audiences worldwide. Currently Assistant Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra his appearances in the 21/22 season include leading the San Francisco Symphony, Seoul Philharmonic, and Ann Arbor Symphony in subscription; the New York Philharmonic in its annual Lunar New Year Gala; and debuts with the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra at New York’s Lincoln Center, the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood, and with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam as a participant in the Ammodo masterclasses led by Fabio Luisi. Next season includes a return to the San Francisco Symphony and his Boston Symphony subscription debut.

Beginning with the 22-23 season, Earl joins the Ann Arbor Symphony as Music Director.

Earl recently concluded his position as the Associate Conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony where he led various concerts and its programming. He also served as the Resident Conductor of the Toronto Symphony from 2015 to 2018.

In all of his professional activities, Earl seeks ways to connect with fellow musicians and audiences on a personal level. His concerts to date in Canada, the U.S., China and South Korea have often been accompanied by outreach events beyond the concert hall in the community at large. He has taken great pleasure in mentoring young musicians as former Artistic Director and Conductor of the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra, and as Music Director of the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra and is a regular guest conductor with the orchestras of North America’s top music schools such as Manhattan School of Music and the New England, San Francisco, and Royal Conservatories.

As a cellist, Earl has performed at festivals such as the Marlboro Music Festival, Music from Angel Fire, Caramoor Rising Stars, and Ravinia’s Steans Institute and has toured as a member of the East Coast Chamber Orchestra (ECCO), with Musicians from Marlboro, with and Gary Burton & Chick Corea as a guest member of the Harlem String Quartet.

Earl has degrees in cello from the Curtis Institute of Music and the Juilliard School and in conducting from Manhattan School of Music and the New England Conservatory. He was the recipient of the 50th Anniversary Heinz Unger Award from the Ontario Arts Council in 2018, of a Solti Career assistance Award in 2021 and has been awarded a Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy Scholarship by Kurt Masur and the Ansbacher Fellowship by the American Austrian Foundation and members of the Vienna Philharmonic. He lives in New York City with his wife and their daughter.


June 9, 2022 (Ann Arbor, MI) — The Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra (A²SO) is delighted to announce the appointment of conductor Earl Lee as the orchestra’s next Music Director. The culmination of a three-year international search that evaluated over 225 applicants, the announcement comes as the orchestra prepares to launch its 2022-23 season in September.

The current Assistant Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Lee becomes the 14th Music Director in the A²SO’s 94-year history. A rising star in the classical music world, he was recently announced as winner of the prestigious 2022 Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award, the first musician of Asian heritage to receive the honor.

A²SO Executive Director Sarah Calderini remarks “We’re thrilled by Earl’s appointment as the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra’s next Music Director, and look forward to authoring a new, groundbreaking chapter in the orchestra’s storied history. From our first discussions and rehearsals with Earl, it was clear that he was a musician and artist of uncommon quality, and I could not be more excited for the community and region to benefit from his leadership and vision.”

For A²SO Board President Carol Sewell, the future of the Symphony is brighter than ever with Lee’s appointment: “Earl captivated the orchestra, board and audience from his very first baton stroke, and his interactions with all who came in contact with him affirmed this impression. We’re tremendously excited to be bringing international award-winning talent to Southeastern Michigan’s doorstep and can’t wait to kick off our season opener in September with Earl on the podium.”

The opportunity to take the helm of one of Michigan’s premiere regional orchestras excites and inspires Lee: “When I was in Ann Arbor in April, I had such a wonderful time working with the musicians. A special spark was lit from the very first rehearsal, and I’m so proud of the music we got to share with the community of Ann Arbor in the concert hall. Even during the short period of a week spending time with the orchestra, staff and board members, it was clear to me that I wanted to do something here with this group and become a part of this community. Thank you so much for your open arms as I join the A²SO family, and I look forward to sharing many years of great music together.”

Lee’s first performance as Music Director of the A²SO will take place on September 9th, 2022, as he opens the Symphony’s new season at Hill Auditorium with a concert of Carlos Simon’s This Land, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 and Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with pianist Inon Barnatan.


Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra (A2SO)

A2SO 2022-23 Season

A2SO Performance: Beethoven Symphony No. 7

A2SO on Facebook

A2SO on Twitter

A2SO on Instagram

Hill Auditorium
Kelvin J. Baker
Hill Auditorium


Deb Polich: Welcome to creative:impact on 89 one WEMU. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and your host for creative:impact. Thanks for tuning in on Tuesdays to hear our conversations with creative guests rooted in Washtenaw County and explore how their businesses, product, programs, and services impact and add to our local quality of life, place, and economy. It's September in Washtenaw County, and that means our community is surging with students and residents returning after being away for the summer. We have the pleasure of greeting one new arrival who is sure to have an impact on the area. Earl Lee, Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra's new conductor is our guest. Maestro Lee, welcome to creative:impact and the greater Ann Arbor area.

Earl Lee: Thank you so much for having me here.

Deb Polich: Yeah, we're hoping that you're receiving a really warm welcome and finding your way around the community so far.

Earl Lee: Absolutely. I mean, even the week that I came to conduct last April for kind of my audition week, the whole staff and the community, the audience, the orchestra, everybody was so welcoming, and I felt right at home. So, I'm so happy to be a part of this great community.

Deb Polich: And we're really lucky to have you here. Speaking of finding your way, how did you find your way to music in general and then a career as a music director and conductor?

Earl Lee: Well, it's a very long story.

Deb Polich: We only have a few minutes.

Earl Lee: I'm going to try to make it very brief. I was born in South Korea, and my mother was a piano teacher in a rather smaller city all the way down south called Yeosu City. And my father was a very passionate classical music fan. He was the one who used to collect all the LPs and what we called laserdiscs. We were the very few families who had laserdisc, which is the larger grandfather of the DVD.

Deb Polich: Right, right. I remember those.

Earl Lee: Yeah. So, he would always bring home, you know, back thenm it would release a new concert video of Berlin Philharmonic, and I remember him being so excited one day bringing in a LP of Abbado conducting Mahler. One thing that he said, "Oh, this is the person who's succeeding Kayon." And I remember vaguely. And so, music was very natural for me to be a part of. And, of course, my mother taught me piano because she was a teacher. And, therefore, I absolutely hated it. And the only way out of playing the piano was to pick up another instrument. So, later, luckily, my elementary school had an orchestra, and I picked up cello. And I fell in love with it immediately. And my life continued on as going into music. I went to Curtis Institute later in Philadelphia for cello and Juilliard. Had a little bit of a stumble in my career because I had a pretty bad hand injury called dystonia. And from there on, again, long story short, it was a very difficult time, but I found that I was so passionate for performing and sharing music on stage and thinking back to what I have been watching and being fascinated by all these conductors of the videos and concert videos that my father brought home, I gave it a go in studying for conducting. In the beginning, there was a lot of book study because you have to be able to read multiple lines of music called a score. And, yeah, I just started writing and got into schools and job after another. I ended up coming very fortunate to be joining the community of Ann Arbor.

Deb Polich: You mentioned the score. Are you able to, as a conductor, as you're reading through a score, do you hear all the different parts in your head or somehow imagine those?

Earl Lee: Yeah. Actually, I think somebody told me that reading a score is like being able to scan the music really quickly. I'm not sure how many people out there can actually read the score of Wagner or really complex scores vertically. You know what I mean? Chord by chord.

Deb Polich: Right.

Earl Lee: Of course, you study that in your room, and you try to figure that out on the piano. But if you're ever decided to read a score...I don't know if that's a possible thing to do. You know, read it vertically in tempo. I don't think that's possible. But what you are good at, what you can actually improve on, I think, is scanning through really quickly in time that you are able to actually pick out what might be the important voice or what might be the secondary and all that really quickly. I think that skill is absolutely possible to improve on.

Deb Polich: And can somebody who's trained as a conductor or a music director conduct any kind of music, or is it specific to your training?

Earl Lee: Well, yeah, I think, especially at this time of our profession in classical music, it's important to be able to be that one would be able to be very versatile. For example, there is such a big difference. I remember when I was starting out as an assistant conductor, one of the concerts that I was assigned was movie music. And movie music meaning not just playing the movie music as a concert, you would have a screen of the movie actually playing--

Deb Polich: Right.

Earl Lee: In real time, while you're conducting the live orchestra played to the movie.

Deb Polich: One of our favorite things here in Ann Arbor at the Michigan Theater. We do it a lot.

Earl Lee: I can tell you one thing. You know, as an audience, and I've been to a lot of those concerts, it's absolute joy and one of the most fun concerts to attend for conductors. It is really, really difficult because the movie will not listen and wait for you.

Deb Polich: Right.

Earl Lee: You know how when you write chamber music, for example, one of the beauties is that musicians can listen to each other and adjust and be spontaneous and all that. But there's none of that here, right? You have a streamer which is in front of your score, then there's a little screen that plays the movie separately just for the conductor to see. And there's a what we call, like, the blinking light that gives you the tempo. And there's also this line that moves from right to left, and that kind of gives you the bar line.

Deb Polich: Well, I know somebody who will be wanting to talk to you about this: Russ Collins, because he as you know, I said, they do that a lot at the theater. 89 one WEMU's creative:impact continues. I'm Deb Polich, and my guest is Maestro Earl Lee, Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra's new conductor. So, you're considered a rising star as punctuated by the Solti Foundation's awarding you its prestigious Georg Solti Conducting Award. And that identifies and supports emerging talent. That's a great honor. Congratulations!

Earl Lee: Thank you so much.

Deb Polich: I was kind of surprised to find out that you're the first musician of Asian heritage to receive the honor. You know, we hear about women and people of color being largely absent from the podium for as musical conductors. Everything seems to stay rather largely Eurocentric. What does receiving this award mean to you as the first Asian heritage recipient?

Earl Lee: You know, first and foremost, I was absolutely honored to receive this award and just seeing who had received it in the past--my colleagues--it is a tremendous honor. As an Asian heritage... again, I'm very thankful to be the first Asian heritage to receive the honor. I haven't really thought about that until you just asked me about this, and I think the important thing is that we hope that not just Asian background or, you know, conductor of color or female conductors, I think we have to always evolve in a way that everyone has equal important chances to grow. And I think we're on the right track that people are being aware of this. We're on the right track. And I hope that the future is bright for everyone to pursue their dream.

Opening Night banner
Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra
Opening Night banner

Deb Polich: Yes, indeed. You know, speaking of the future, in just days, you're going to take the podium at Hill Auditorium to conduct as music director your first Ann Arbor Symphony concert. What's on the program, and how are you imagining Saturday will play out?

Earl Lee: Well, the program is a rather very exciting one. We're starting with Carlos Simon's piece called "This Land." And speaking of inclusion, also, you know, this country, we have this great country that is open to everyone, that is very diverse, it consists of community of very diverse people with different backgrounds and different personalities. And Carlos, actually, said that he was inspired to write that piece from the poem Lazarus's "Colossus." And it's a really beautiful piece of music that opens the concert. We're joined by Inon Barnatan on piano, Rachmaninoff's Paganini variation. To musicians, we call it--the short abbreviation--we call it the "Racktag." It's very virtuosic. And also, it, of course, has one of the most beautiful signature stamp of Rachmaninoff, which is beautiful melody. And we conclude the concert with Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, which I don't think needs any explanation.

Deb Polich: You can hear your excitement. And we can't wait to hear about the concert and, frankly, all of the things that you're going to do with and for the Ann Arbor Symphony in the years to come. I want to thank you for spending some time in what must be a really busy week here on creative:impact.

Earl Lee: Thank you so much for having me.

Deb Polich: It's been a joy. That's Maestro Earl Lee, who takes the podium for the first time this Saturday as the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra's 14th conductor and music director. Find more about Earl and the Ann Arbor Symphony at WEMU dot org. You've been listening to creative:impact. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and your host. Mat Hopson is our producer. Join Mat and me again next Tuesday when we welcome another creative Washtenaw guest. Celebrating 45 years of jazz broadcasting, this is 89 one WEMU Ypsilanti, public radio from Eastern Michigan University. Online at WEMU dot org.

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Polich hosts the weekly segment creative:impact, which features creative people, jobs and businesses in the greater Ann Arbor area.
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