All Dressed

Le Concert Champêtre: in conversation with Naomi Woo

Back before there were iPods and Airpods, CDs, cassette tapes, and shellac, the only way to hear music would have been to hear musicians playing it. And before there were synthesizers and samplers and computers capable of making any sound under the sun, there were orchestras.

Music is such an ambient part of everyday life that it’s easy to take for granted how exceptional it is to hear sound organized in such forms that seem conventional now, but were in no way predetermined. There is no natural law that decreed stringed instruments, that blew wind through wood and brass, or drummed drums and crashed cymbals in ecstatic crescendos.

“An orchestra really is like an instrument,” says pianist and conductor Naomi Woo, who this summer begins an artistic collaboration with the Orchestre Metropolitain, following a two-year mentorship under superstar conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Woo launches her OM partnership at the podium of three free en plein air concerts taking place in Montreal’s outer niches between July 5th and 12th. As a keyboardist first, it’s fitting that Woo might view the orchestra as one big instrument, “that consists,” she explains, “of dozens or hundreds of other instruments that can make so many sounds and colours and ideas.”

Woo began her musical training at age four as a pianist. She was captivated with an upright piano at home and begged her parents for lessons. But they thought she was too young, having not started grade school. A musician friend of the family encouraged a change of heart.

“This musician said, oh no, she’s four, she’s far too old,” Woo recalls. “My really earliest memories of music were just the joy of discovery. I really loved discovering all of the sounds and colours that the piano could make. And when I discovered the orchestra, that was a whole new journey of discovering this instrument.”

Woo was one of the first participants in a new mentorship programme for young conductors developed by the Orchestre Metropolitain and Maestro Nézet-Séguin. The programme’s aim is to immerse conductors not only in the orchestra’s musical side, but also in its administrative, promotional, educational, and community outreach work, providing a holistic view of a functioning symphony’s machinery.

Woo quickly fell in love with the Orchestre Metropolitain. “It has such an incredible enthusiasm, an incredible life,” she says of this unique collective instrument. “It’s an orchestra that’s constantly pushing the boundaries of the repertoire, showing audiences new things. They’re not afraid to riff. And those riffs have paid off. We’ve got audiences into the concert hall, and into the outdoors, as well. It’s really exciting to see that.”

The park performances in July are Woo’s unique chance to take the Orchestre Metropolitain into outlying neighbourhoods — and to audiences who, for whatever reasons, might not regularly attend Maison Symphonique.

“They’re really special concerts,” Woo says, “because they take place in communities, they take place outdoors, they are free for anyone to come to — with food, with families — and have a really wonderful experience. This is a great opportunity for me to visit some new neighbourhoods, to get to know some new people, to get a feel for who this orchestra is really for, which in my mind is everyone. And to top things off, we’re performing some pretty exceptional music.”

“There’s the feeling of experiencing an orchestra live,” says Woo, “which is different than a recording, simply because of the physics.”

Woo tells me that the pandemic shifted her perspective on the real value and cultural meaning both of performing and experiencing music live. “I have a vivid memory of watching a movie,” she recalls. “It must have been in May or June of 2020. And in the movie there was a scene where there were people at a concert. It wasn’t an emotional scene in the movie at all, but I burst into tears. And I hadn’t realized how much I missed it. And that feeling — I vowed in that moment to not take it for granted.”

Woo and I talk awhile about that lost-and-found feeling of coming through the lockdown’s looking glass, of regaining what was missed, and that unmistakable sensation of hearing anew.

“There’s two things,” Woo elaborates: “There’s the feeling of experiencing an orchestra live, which is different than a recording, simply because of the physics. Because the sound waves made by the instrumentalists are transferring through the air and into your body. That’s how we hear sound: it’s waves; it’s touch; it’s something tangible and physical. Those sound waves are different when they’re coming out of tubas and oboes and violas and double basses compared to when they’re coming out of speakers. That’s just a physical fact of science. So that’s one thing, and that’s so powerful. And then there’s the feeling of being together as an audience. You might know when you have a CD that thousands or hundreds of thousands or millions of people also own that CD. But it is different when you have all gathered together to share in an experience. It’s incomparable. I feel really lucky that I get to be a part of it every day.”

Woo’s enthusiasm for this city is equally infectious. She confesses a love for the local independent music scene, particularly some of Montreal’s more boundary-pushing composers. “I actually wrote a chapter of my PhD about Nicole Lizée,” says Woo. “I’m a really, really big fan of her work. Music is one of the ways I understand the world. So listening to and getting to know local music and artists is a way that I can understand the people and the spaces around me.”

The Orchestre Metropolitain’s Alfresco concerts are Montreal’s opportunity to get to know Woo, too, to hear symphonic music beyond a concert hall, and to feel the actual physical sound vibrations that only an orchestra can offer. For Woo, it’s about making connections.

“I think Montreal has a real vibrance, artistically. The linguistic and cultural diversity of the city makes for a unique kind of cultural engagement, and unique possibilities for bridging divides, bridging gaps between people.”◼︎

The OM Alfresco with Naomi Woo runs 5-12 July 2023.