Four years ago, concert pianist Naomi Woo was selected as Assistant Conductor of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra (WSO). Woo embraced the challenge, driven to master new avenues of musical creativity and implement her vision of music breaking barriers to social progress.
Today, Woo is eagerly anticipating her next steps. She launches the 2023-2024 season with a tour across the United Kingdom conducting the Rossini opera, La Cenerentola, ossia La bontà in trionfo (“Cinderella, or Goodness Triumphant”). She will also collaborate as an artistic partner with Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Principal Conductor of the Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal. In Toronto, Woo will help the Tapestry Opera company produce Dragon’s Tail — an opera about dragon boat racing.
Conducting symphony orchestras has been a historically male-dominated arena. It’s also not a job a young conductor can practice independently.
Image: Naomi Woo (far left), Chris White, RBC Regional Vice President for Winnipeg (far right) with others from the RBC Canadian Conductor Showcase; Douglas Little Photography
Canada’s orchestral voice
“The RBC Canadian Conductor Showcase is part of the WSO’s strategy and commitment to developing the Canadian orchestral voice,” says Maestro Daniel Raiskin. “It allows us to provide rare and impactful orchestral training opportunities and experiences for emerging and early career conductors alongside our other artist development programs.”
Through RBC Emerging Artists, she was selected as Assistant Conductor of WSO. The position was created to further the commitments of the WSO and RBC to develop and enhance the Canadian orchestral community of female and non-binary conductors, providing an opportunity for musical development and career enhancement.
Under the mentorship of Maestro Raiskin, Woo was able to expand her orchestral conducting in a guided, structured way. “Conducting is musical collaboration — classical music has come a long way and still has a long way to go,” says Woo.
Image: Chris White, RBC Regional Vice President, Winnipeg, onstage opening the Lunar New Year Celebration; Douglas Little Photography
Opportunities and development
While at WSO, Woo mentored other musicians and promoted diversity and inclusion. In addition to serving as musical director of the University of Manitoba Orchestra, Woo collaborated with American, Chinese and British composers — notably the UK-based ensemble, Tangram — to create music at the intersection of Chinese and Western traditions.
Her efforts culminated in her winning the Virginia Parker Prize, “presented to a musician, instrumentalist or classical music conductor under the age of 32 who demonstrates outstanding talent, musicianship and artistic excellence and who makes a valuable contribution to artistic life in Canada and internationally.”
“The many creative moments I have shared with this vibrant community of musicians will inspire me for a lifetime. I am deeply grateful to the WSO for trusting me, guiding my growth, presenting me with challenges, providing support, and setting me up to succeed.”
Image: Conductor Naomi Woo and her father
Advice for aspiring musicians
Woo says one of the most rewarding aspects of her role was the opportunity to serve as the first musical director of Sistema Winnipeg. This partnership between WSO and the Winnipeg school system provides two hours of after-school music education, year-round, to students in at-risk communities at no cost to their families. Woo says she was thrilled to work with children who love music and recognize its power to change their lives and shape the world. Some of her students wrote songs and created music to help further their message about causes they are passionate about.
She is convinced that while an inclusive climate, luck, location and timing are critical, aspiring musicians also have significant power to shape their own success.
“The WSO experience has energized my commitment to help empower talented musicians who recognize the power of music to inspire people and drive momentum toward social and political change,” she says.
“Attitude, preparation and collaboration are essential tools musicians can use to enhance the intrinsic joy that music brings and help to ensure talent is recognized,” Woo says. “Approach every new environment, every project and every rehearsal with a positive attitude; support your positive attitude with diligent preparation and focus on collaboration — listening to colleagues and sharing ideas with them to nurture a climate of creativity.”
Image: Naomi Woo; Douglas Little Photography
WSO and RBC Emerging Artists
Woo feels fortunate to be coming of age as a conductor when the social climate is rapidly changing in favour of inclusion for marginalized people. Initiatives such as RBC Emerging Artists allow musicians to hone their talents instead of focusing on barriers like gender, disability, or poverty.
“Our partnership with WSO has supported Naomi Woo with exactly what RBC Emerging Artists is meant to deliver for up-and-coming artists, which is to provide results-driven programs and resources to help them gain recognition for their talent and develop their professional careers,” says Chris White, RBC Regional Vice President, Winnipeg. “Naomi’s trajectory has been ignited by RBC and WSO’s mutual support, fueled by mentorship, artistic development and early success.”
“Music is a powerful instrument for change,” Woo says. “Collaborative conducting is my strategy,” Woo says. “I look forward to creating new frontiers of the musically, socially and politically impossible.”
Banner image: Douglas Little Photography
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