Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra RBC Assistant Conductor Naomi Woo is a prominent young Canadian conductor, recognized by CBC (30 Under 30) and Flare Magazine (How I Made It) as a rising star on the Canadian classical music scene, and notable for her work as a socially-engaged artist and educator. As an opera conductor and music director, Naomi is remarkable for her collaborative approach and natural command for storytelling and language. She has conducted more than a dozen operas with students and young professionals in US and the UK.
This Saturday (Feb 27) the maestra will be pulling double duty as both conductor and soloist when she’ll be performing and conducting from the piano for a work by Marianne von Martinez. Get all the details here.
In this weekend’s concert, you are the conductor and the soloist. When did you start playing the piano and how did the piano evolve for you?
I’ve been playing piano since I was five years old: pretty much as long as I can remember. My most memorable experiences as a pianist, even from a very young age, are playing chamber music—piano duets with my friends and my siblings, and then playing in a piano trio at the Vancouver Academy of Music throughout high school. Music for me has always been about connecting with other people. That’s also what I love about conducting!
I’ve been able to conduct from the keyboard a few times, as a concerto soloist as well as when conducting operas from the harpsichord. It’s such an intimate and special way of performing. It also relies on a very close collaboration with the orchestra, and especially the concertmaster, which in this piece will be WSO Associate Concertmaster Karl Stobbe. I feel so lucky to be able to work so closely and collaboratively with the incredible musicians here at the WSO in this performance!
Is there a particular piece of music or artist that cemented the piano for you?
No question: Maurice Ravel. I love the colours he creates at the piano, and the rich orchestrations that he made of his own piano works. Playing Ravel at the piano was the first time I understood the tremendous orchestral possibilities of the instrument; and studying and conducting Ravel’s orchestrations is how I learned about the magnificent possibilities of the orchestra as an “instrument” too! I think my love of Ravel is what makes playing the piano and conducting feel so similar to me.
How do you balance being a conductor and a pianist?
Well, the past year there hasn’t been much to balance! But honestly, I feel so grateful to be able to make music as a job.
You are the music director for Sistema Winnipeg–a daily, intensive, after-school program that uses music education as a tool for social change. Sistema serves children in Winnipeg’s North End with the fewest resources and greatest need. What does being a part of this program bring to your playing, conducting and love of music?
Our students at Sistema Winnipeg have such a tremendous, unbridled, and enthusiastic love of music, which is absolutely infectious. They choose to stay after school every day to play their instruments! How many 9 year olds come home and ask their parents to practice an instrument for three hours every day?
At the same time, this programme is as much about social change as it is about music. Through making music, our students explore empathy and self-expression, learn to support each other and work together as a team. Any time I work with young people, and especially the students at Sistema, I am reminded of how much a shared love of music can bring people together.
Can you tell us a bit about the Marianne von Martinez piano concerto you’ll be performing on Saturday?
Marianne von Martinez was a virtuoso keyboard player, singer, composer and socialite who lived in Vienna in the 18th century and whose family hosted salons attended by so many of the famous musicians in Vienna at the time! It’s fun to imagine her in that space while playing this piece, and to think about who might have been her in ensembles and her audiences. We know that she played duets with Mozart, was close family friends with Metastasio who supervised her musical training, took lessons from Haydn (when they were both very young…) Playing this music helps me to better imagine and understand the musical context of 18th century Vienna! And it’s just a lot of fun!
Saturday night’s program also includes a work by Louise Farrenc. What can you tell us about that
Oh, this piece is so wonderful! It’s a Nonet, so there are only nine instruments on stage, but it’s actually very much a mini-symphony. The violin part—which will be played by our incredible concertmaster Gwen Hoebig—is especially soloistic, and was originally performed by the virtuoso Joseph Joachim when he was only 18 years old!
What is something people might be surprised to know about you?
People often seem surprised to learn that I ride my bicycle in Winnipeg all year!
Naomi joined the WSO in 2019. In addition to her position at the symphony, she has conducted ensembles including the International Ensemble Modern Academy Orchestra, Cambridge New Music Ensemble, and the Yale Symphony Orchestra. As an assistant, she has worked with conductors including Jac Van Steen, Sir Mark Elder, Matias Bamert, Jessica Cottis, and Jane Glover.
Naomi holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge, where she was a Gates Cambridge Scholar. She has also studied mathematics, philosophy, and music at Yale College, the Yale School of Music, and Université de Montréal. Her formative training before university took place at the Vancouver Academy of Music.
Born in St. John’s, Newfoundland; grew up in North Vancouver, BC
Favourite thing about Winnipeg:
The bright open sunny skies year-round (even when it’s very cold!)
Your go to snack:
The orange peels constantly scattered around my house are a clue…