Conductor Yue Bao set for Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut at Ravinia
“It is really great to see the field diversify and to see more female composers and conductors,” Bao says.
As little as five or 10 years ago, women on the podiums of symphony orchestras large and small remained a rarity. But with the rise of the #MeToo movement and intensified discussions of equity and diversity since the death of George Floyd in 2020, the situation is rapidly changing.
A new generation of female conductors has emerged, and they are making their presence felt. Among them is Miah Im, music director of the Houston Grand Opera Studio; Anna Rakatina, assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony, and Eun Sun Kim, music director of the San Francisco Opera.
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Yue Bao, guest conductor
When: 5 p.m. Aug. 8
Where: Ravinia Festival, 200 Ravinia Park Road, Highland Park
Tickets: $10-$15, lawn seating; $15-$115, pavilion seating
Also prominent on that list is Yue Bao, 30, who was named the Ting Tsung and Wei Fong Chao Foundation Conducting Fellow of the Houston Symphony in November 2019. One of her biggest career milestones so far will come Aug. 8 when the Shanghai native makes her debut as guest conductor with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park.
When she got the news about the engagement several months ago, Bao was literally jumping for joy in her apartment. “It’s a really big deal for me,” she said.
When she began collaborating with Ravinia officials on the chamber-orchestra program, the only fixed selection was Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola, featuring violinist Stella Chen and violist Matthew Lipman as soloists.
She then added Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 4, “Mozartiana,” and the “Duo Ye” No. 1 for Chamber Orchestra (1985) by Chen Yi, a Chinese-born composer who is on the faculty of the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She was a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Music.
According to the composer’s notes accompanying the work, “Duo Ye” is a traditional song and dance of the Dong minority in the Guangxi region of China that is used to welcome guests or celebrate a happy occasion.
“So, I think it will be fitting as an opening piece,” Bao said, noting Ravinia’s festival atmosphere, “and it also has a really energetic spirit and quite charming folk songs, so I hope it will bring a different color to this program.”
Bao’s introduction to music came when she was 5 or 6 and began piano lessons in part because her mother saw some articles about the instrument improving children’s IQ. “I’m not sure that worked for me,” she said with a laugh.
She soon found herself inspired by her teacher, Liang Guo, who was also a composer, so she also began to try her hand at writing music. The aspiring musician would sometimes assemble some of her friends to learn and play her pieces, and one day her teacher saw her leading such a gathering and recommended she study conducting in college.
“To be honest,” Bao said, “at that time, I didn’t think my personality was the right match for a conductor, who was powerful, like a boss, in my imagination. But I trusted him [Liang Guo] and I started it [conducting], and then I felt that it was something that came naturally to me and I really enjoyed it. And the more I studied the more I found I had had the wrong perspective about conducting. It’s really a collaborative relationship between you and the musicians.”
Bao graduated from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in 2014 and moved to the United States to attend the Mannes School of Music in New York City, obtaining a master’s degree and artist’s diploma after three years. She then went on to get another artist’s diploma at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia in 2019 — a time she saw as kind of bridge between her musical studies and the professional world.
While she was at both American schools, she had the chance to assist conductors at several professional orchestras, including Gilbert Varga at the St. Louis Symphony and Osmo Vänskä, music director of the Minnesota Orchestra. In addition, in the summer of 2019, she was a conducting fellow at the well-respected Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz, Calif.
All these opportunities meant that by the time she arrived at the Houston Symphony for her first full-time role — a position that is the equivalent of an assistant conductor at other orchestras — she already had considerable experience.
“It is really great to see the field diversify,” Bao said, “and to see more female composers and conductors. I think it definitely takes time to achieve the goals we want to achieve but we are on the right path to it.”
To that end, she believes the best thing she can do as a young conductor is keep working hard and making great music. “Music talks,” she said.
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.