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The Penn Symphony Orchestra kicked off a new era last Friday, as Thomas Hong conducted his first performance with the ensemble.

Credit: Owain West

The University’s largest musical ensemble has a new figure at the helm, and the Music Department couldn’t be more pleased.

Thomas Hong, the new director of the Penn Symphony Orchestra, brings experience, charisma and flair to the position.

Michael Ketner, the Music Department’s director of performance, attributes the feeling of excitement about the coming year’s performances to Hong’s new role as full-time director. “What really excites me is … [the students'] excitement,” he said. “Last year [Hong] was the interim director and we solicited feedback from the students. Without a doubt, the response to Thomas Hong was extremely positive. There were a lot of students who really, really wanted to see him get hired.” 

Hong is no stranger to university and professional ensembles alike: He spent eight years total leading the Rice University and Haverford College orchestras and has worked with the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony, New York Youth Symphony and Seattle Youth Symphony.

For Hong, the issue is not so much technical perfection as it is bringing about the best experience possible for both the audience and the orchestra. “You’re still drilling, but the end goal is very different,” Hong said. “The performance is meant to be a completely new, interactive experience. Emoting together is the goal.”

That emotion and care is facilitated by Hong’s character, according to Ketner. “[The students] make great music because they really want to,” he said. ”[Hong] is very energetic. He is definitely not one to be stoic. He lets it all out there, and the students love that. That and the fact that he is one of the nicest people you’ll come across.”

PSO's first performance this past Friday was well-received by students. “The Rachmaninoff [that they played] was particularly moving,”  College freshman Niyathi Chakrapani said.

Their next concert is on Dec. 5, with what Hong calls “a sampler” of the best in symphonic music. “We want to cater to students at a busy time of the semester,” he said. "Our number one priority is for the students. The second concert … is three movements from different symphonies by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Brahms. We chose this repertoire to bring all the familiar stuff to the students, playing it at a high level, but making it a very accessible concert.”

After a concert on Feb. 20, which will feature solo pianist Amy Yang, a member of Penn's Chamber Music faculty, playing Schumann as well as works by Mahler and Ravel, the orchestra will finish its year with a large and audacious night by performing Mahler’s Second Symphony on April 29.

“The fact that they’re doing Mahler’s Second is … to be honest, something I never thought I would see here,” Ketner said. “I never thought we would have a conductor … who would take [on such a difficult piece]. So I’m happy to see that we have someone who’s willing to try something like that.”

The concert will feature over 100 orchestra members and the University’s largest choral group.

“A great performance is not possible without a great audience,” Hong said. “And we challenge everyone to give us a try. We promise not to disappoint.”

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